Ohio faces second year with no executions

A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility shows an electric chair and gurney Aug. 29, 2001 in Lucasville, Ohio. Photo by Mike Simons/Getty Images.

When Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine last week delayed three more executions into 2022 and 2023, it meant that 2020 would be the second consecutive year in which the Buckeye State had engaged in no judicial killings.

The delays beg the question: Will the death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility ever be used again in a state that has executed the eighth-most people in the modern era?

In issuing the most recent order for reprieve, DeWine cited a familiar reason, saying the executions couldn’t proceed “due to ongoing problems involving the willingness of pharmaceutical suppliers to provide drugs to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC), pursuant to DRC protocol, without endangering other Ohioans.”

The governor has delayed all executions since January 2019, when press reports said a federal judge had likened the state’s execution method to torture and then showed the elaborate steps officials were taking to hide from drug makers their plans to use the companies’ products in the Ohio death house. 

Subsequent reporting showed the state had gone ahead with executions, ignoring demands by the companies to not use their products in such a way. That prompted threats from the companies to stop supplying Ohio for any purpose, including therapeutic uses approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

But the events of recent months might have provided more than technical reasons to stop executions in Ohio, said Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, which compiles data on executions throughout the United States.

He said that public opinion in recent years had already been shifting against the death penalty. 

Perhaps helping to drive that have been botched executions such as that of Romell Broom, who was convicted of raping and killing a 14-year-old in 1984. The first attempt to kill him in 2009 was aborted after prison workers stuck him over and over in an unsuccessful search for a vein, one time hitting bone

After getting the go-ahead from the U.S. Supreme Court, the state had scheduled Broom for a second visit to the death chamber next week.  Then DeWine in April moved the date back to March 16, 2022.

Some Ohioans might have been turned off by other problematic executions such as that of Dennis McGuire in 2014, who choked and struggled for more than 10 minutes before dying.

However, in two decisions in recent years, the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled such incidents don’t amount to cruel and unusual punishment if they don’t “superadd” pain — in other words, they’re not punishments that would have been considered cruel when the Eighth Amendment was adopted in 1791.

Despite the direction of the high court since 2015, Dunham said the events of 2020 may well be pushing the public in another.

“I think that after COVID-19 and after George Floyd, the economic and social-justice environment will be completely different from what it was last year,” Dunham said. 

Clearly, the mass protests have forced elected officials to place new focus on racial inequality. 

When it comes to application of the death penalty, those inequalities are stark. Blacks make up less than 14% of the overall population, but they’ve been 34% of those executed in the United States since 1976. 

In addition, blacks make up 42% of the death-row population, the same percentage as whites. But whites make up more than 75% of the overall population.

Dunham said those statistics are a sort of leading indicator of other disparities in the justice system.

“There’s a very real sense in which the death penalty is a canary (in the coal mine) for the criminal justice system,” he said. “Everything that’s bad in the criminal justice system is worse when it comes to capital punishment.”

Dunham added that the current outcry to address historic biases might influence an already fluid situation in Ohio. 

DeWine has been generally tight-lipped about his view, other than to say it’s the law. But in December he said, “What keeps us safer is locking up repeat violent offenders and throwing away the key,” Gongwer News service reported.

In February, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder questioned the expense and practicalbilty of the Ohio death penalty and said he was open to a discussion of repeal.

Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina was the only member of the big three who came down firmly against repeal. And he faces a term limit and will leave office in January.