Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?

In the past, abolition efforts have faced a backlash—but Gavin Newsom’s moratorium may be different.
The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.
On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an “abject…

Ohio has a troubled death penalty system yet intends to resume executions anyway

Ohio's death chamber
Ohio's death chamber
It’s been more than three years since Ohio last executed a convicted killer. Unfortunately, the state is poised to resume the barbaric practice next week despite serious questions over respect for constitutional protections and the basic fairness of how the state administers the capital punishment system itself.

Capital punishment had been halted in the wake of a botched execution. In early 2014, the state had converted to a new, untested two-drug lethal injection protocol — the sedative midazolam followed by hydromorphone, a painkiller — because it no longer could find suppliers for pentobarbital or sodium thiopental, the more powerful barbiturates it previously used in both single- and three-drug protocols.

Critics warned that midazolam wouldn’t sedate inmate Dennis McGuire sufficiently, and, indeed, witnesses reported that McGuire “snorted, gasped and struggled” during a procedure that dragged on for 26 minutes, more than 10 minutes longer than lethal-injection executions usually take. (Midazalom does not have the same anesthetic effect as a barbiturate; an expert in pharmacology and toxicology offers a good overview of execution drugs here.)

That grotesque killing led the state and, later, a federal judge to halt executions until officials could figure out what went wrong, and how to fix it.

Ohio already was reexamining its capital punishment system, and three months after McGuire’s execution, the Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty issued 56 recommendations aimed at insuring defendants’ rights were protected and that the innocent were not executed.

But to date, “the most substantive of our recommendations to the Legislature lay idle,” retired state Judge James Brogan, who chaired the task force, complained Wednesday. “This lack of action is disconcerting and will enable the core problems we identified to continue and potentially lead to wrongful death penalty convictions.”

The safeguards range from expanding defendant access to legal help, to barring death sentences unless specific biological evidence or a voluntary recorded confession link the suspect to the murder, to removing the death penalty from specific types of felony murder (committed in the commission of another crime).

Yet Ohio intends to forge ahead anyway, despite a dodgy history of wrongful convictions. Nine death row inmates in Ohio have been exonerated since 1979, four of them in the past four years. All but two of the nine had served at least a quarter-century before their exonerations, and three had served 39 years in prison. That is a pretty high failure rate in a state with 140 people on death row, and 53 executions since 1999.

The prospect that Ohio might resume killing the condemned before fixing the flaws spotlighted by the task force (I doubt they can be fixed) has sparked outrage, and a campaign is underway urging Gov. John Kasich to reinstate a moratorium.

This, of course, puts Kasich, a once and possibly future presidential contender, in a bit of a corner. Kasich is pro-death penalty, Still, his decision here shouldn’t be couched in terms of political popularity, but in terms of morality and good governance. It is immoral to kill, especially so for a state to kill its own citizens.

More prosaically, capital punishment, once administered, cannot be undone, but the system that delivers it is rife with errors, leading to wrongful convictions. It also is inherently unjust in that it falls disproportionately on the poor and minorities. And it is a massively expensive system to maintain, a cost that becomes harder to defend when you factor in the wrongful convictions — making it an expensive and failed system.

Rather than rushing back into the immorality of executions, Ohio ought to move in the opposite direction, and take steps to end the practice altogether.

Source: Los Angeles Times, Opinion, Scott Martelle, July 21, 2017

Op-ed: My husband supervised Ohio executions for 5 years. It changed his life

Screenshot from 'Monster's Ball', by Mark Forster (2001)
Screenshot from 'Monster's Ball', a film by by Mark Forster (2001)
Linda Collins is the widow of Terry Collins, who served for 33 years in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, including as director from 2006 - 2010.

To be asked to carry out an execution as part of your job is an extraordinarily difficult experience. I know this because my husband of 44 years, Terry Collins, was placed in this position many times throughout his career, including as director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. Each of the 33 executions he oversaw took a tremendous toll on him.

As I read the news that Ohio is planning to resume its use of the death penalty for the first time in more than three years, with plans to carry out at least 27 lethal injection executions, I think about all the stress and the burden that was placed on him and his staff. [DPN wishes to stress that, unlike prison guards in Nazi Germany or the defunct USSR, corrections officers are not forced to take part in executions, and can resign from their jobs at any time.]

The Department is like one big family. Over decades, you get to know people and their families. You care. When it comes to executions, Ohio is about to go from zero to 60. I am concerned about the risks this fast-paced execution schedule poses to the people tasked with carrying them out.

I know the dedicated professionals who work for the Department would undertake this somber task with the utmost care and the highest standards. But as we all know, even under the best circumstances, executions are very hard on the corrections staff, and sometimes executions don’t go as planned.

For many, participating in executions becomes a major event in their own lives, and can affect them for years to come. I saw the impact executions had on my husband, my best friend.

To be sure, executions go far beyond the walls within which they are carried out. After he retired, I was often struck by public comments Terry would make about executions.

Did the System Get it Right?

Unlike his usual manner, Terry had difficulty remembering the names of some of the prisoners whose executions he oversaw. Even though part of his routine was to personally speak to each and every one before they were executed, he described them as a blur. In retrospect, Terry said forgetting was a coping mechanism. To protect himself, his mind had to blur it out. I certainly would never want another person to go through that kind of anxiety and stress.

With each execution we talked about what nagged him most -- did the system get it right?

Terry’s deep concern about this came from having personally walked innocent people out the front doors of prisons. In fact, three innocent men have been exonerated from Ohio’s death row just since the state’s last execution in 2014. How many more are there?

Terry would often say the death penalty had to be 100 percent perfect, 100 percent of the time. And there is nobody on this Earth who is 100 percent perfect 100 percent of the time.

Loyal Employees Did Their Jobs

We would talk about those difficult execution days -- even when things went according to protocol, they were difficult days. I could see the stress in Terry even in the days before the scheduled execution. While they were hard on him, the trauma of participating in executions has had more severe effects on some of our friends who are more like family. I’ve seen and heard about alcohol and drug abuse, issues with depression, anxiety, and more. Many of those Terry knew who were tasked with carrying out executions would privately prefer not to, but, as loyal employees, they respected the expectations and the job.

Then there were the times when executions didn’t go as planned, as happened more than three years ago during the last execution. We read the reports about Mr. McGuire struggling against the restraints and gasping for air for 26 minutes. Terry was retired then, but he spent that day deeply concerned about all those involved.

I remember when Terry made his decision to retire from the Department. It was not long after the 2009 execution attempt of Romell Broom. When then-Governor Strickland ordered Terry to stop the execution attempt after more than two hours, I think that Terry had had enough.

I feel an obligation to speak out for those who may not be in a position to speak. No one should ever go through participating in an execution like that.

My husband dedicated his life to the safety of prisoners, to his colleagues, and the public just as all corrections professionals and staff do. Their work ensures incarceration is as safe and productive as possible.

It's Too Much to Ask

The criminal justice process doesn’t end when someone is sentenced and jailed. It takes a dedicated, professional, highly skilled staff to ensure that the prison population remains safely incarcerated. That’s what they do, and they do it well, with care and pride. It’s unimaginably difficult to go from looking after prisoners to assisting in the execution of prisoners.

Ohio corrections staff haven’t executed anyone in three and a half years. They are now being ordered to try a controversial drug combination they have never previously used. And they are being asked to go into this schedule knowing it will not let up for years. The executions will keep coming steadily down the line, with no break, no rest.

I respectfully ask our state officials to think of our corrections professionals, who are completely innocent public servants. The proposed execution schedule will harm them, and that’s simply too much to ask.

Source: WCPO, Linda Collins, July 21, 2017

Homicide Survivors Ignored in Study of Victims Needs

Regarding the Victims Families recommendation, HB 663 ("Secret Executions Bill " passed in the lame duck session of 2014) resulted in the appointment of a joint committee of the 2015-16 General Assembly which held a few hearings and produced nothing.

Two leading victims rights advocates questioned the sincerity of the legislatively mandated Joint Committee on Victim’s Services at a meeting of the committee this afternoon at the Statehouse.

“I am deeply concerned that there will not be a comprehensive review of the experiences of homicide survivors in Ohio,” said Melinda Elkins Dawson, whose mother was murdered in Barberton in 1998. “It is my hope and suggestion that it is not too late to accomplish such.”

The Joint Legislative Study Committee on Victims’ Rights was mandated by HB 663 in December, 2014, implementing recommendation 19 of the Ohio Supreme Court’s Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty. The recommendation was to study the needs of homicide survivors in Ohio and the resources available to them.

“One of the most helpful and hopeful signals ever sent regarding support for murder victim families was the establishment of your committee,” said Rev. Jack Sullivan Jr., executive director of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. Sullivan’s sister Jennifer was murdered in 1997 in Cleveland. Her murder remains unsolved. “I am amazed at the relatively few numbers of people who actually know you existed, how they may offer experiences, ideas and aspirations to help guide your work. During a meeting with Senator Coley earlier this year, I was impressed and delighted by his excitement over our proposal to study the services provided to murder victims families and to enhance the state’s efforts to serve their needs. I must also report that I was shocked to learn that this initiative was shut down.”

The two advocates also noted that this hearing took place during National Crime Victims Rights Week, which seeks to raise awareness of the rights and needs of crime victims. They also noted the supplemental appropriations bill introduced on Tuesday. “Especially in light of the Billions of dollars appropriated yesterday, we are puzzled that $30,000 could not be found to support the vital work of this Joint Committee.” said Sullivan.


The Joint Committee was appointed in May 2015 and had its first meeting in January 2016. In a conversation following that first meeting with committee chairman Senator Bill Coley, it became clear that the Joint Committee on Victim’s Rights had not developed a plan to comprehensively study the issue, and that the Committee intended to complete its work by the June recess. Ohioans to Stop Executions and Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation Victims Families for Reconciliation met with Senator Coley in February and offered to recruit the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University to independently conduct two studies. The first was to be an assessment of all of the agencies in Ohio which provide victims services for homicide survivors, and the second was to give Ohio homicide survivors the opportunity to provide input to the process by sharing their own experiences to help the committee understand what their needs were, what was helpful and what was missing. Senator Coley reacted with enthusiasm, offering to find the money to cover the costs which would be incurred by the Kirwan Institute. Within weeks, Senator Coley indicated that no funds could be made available and any studies would be done internally. Yet, no evidence exists that any serious and comprehensive studies are being conducted.

- Today’s Testimony: Melinda Elkins Dawson: http://archive.otse.org/melinda-elkins-dawson-testimony/

- Today’s Testimony: Jack Sullivan Jr.: http://archive.otse.org/jack-sullivan-jr-testimony/

- March 2015 Letter from Ohio Homicide Survivors requesting House and Senate leadership appoint the Joint Committee as mandated in HB 663 as passed in December, 2014: http://archive.otse.org/letter-ohio-homicide-survivors/

- February 2016 Letter from Kirwan Institute offering assistance to produce a comprehensive study of available victim services and a second study allowing for broad input by Ohio Victim Survivors: http://archive.otse.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/VictimsServicesResearchKirwanInstitutetoColeyFebruary4th2016.pdf

- February 2016 Letter from OTSE and MVFR to Joint Committee Chairman Senator Coley: http://archive.otse.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/OTSEMVFRLettertoColeyFeb42016.pdf

Source: OTSE, April 13, 2016 in Press Release

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