The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in late April was sufficiently horrific to inspire the pro-death-penalty Obama administration to do some long-overdue soul searching.
“Deeply troubling” was how Obama characterized the Oklahoma fiasco, which went like this: Medical staff failed to locate a suitable artery on Lockett’s body and elected to insert a catheter into his groin. The catheter missed its target, and over the course of 43 minutes Lockett moaned and writhed in agony, repeatedly struggling against his restraints and trying to speak as the drugs seeped into his soft tissue. The warden ultimately aborted the execution, but Lockett died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.
In the aftermath, state and federal officials have sort of been looking at their shoes and acknowledging that the death penalty has been a disaster for quite some time. Among other things, the availability and efficacy of the drugs used has resulted in repeated changes in protocol. Prosecutors have withheld important evidence that result in capital indictments for innocent men. An astonishing 4 percent of death row inmates are exonerated.
Obama has tasked Eric Holder and the Justice Department to review the administration of capital punishment. He said it’s about time we start asking ourselves some “difficult and profound questions.”
In Ohio, those questions have been simmering in very specific ways since 2007, when the American Bar Association determined that in 93 percent of cases the state failed to meet standard guidelines for fairness and accuracy in the administration of capital punishment.
As a result, a special task force of the Ohio Supreme Court — under the watchful eye of Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor — has been meeting since 2011. Last month, they released the fruits of their labors in the form of 56 recommendations for Gov. Kasich and the state.
Those recommendations have received objections from prosecutors who argue that the recommendations are so stringent that they effectively ban the use of the death penalty.
“A large number of the recommendations would establish a series of procedural and legislative nightmares that would render Ohio’s death penalty inoperable,” states a minority report recently released in response.
The Ohioans to Stop Executions, a statewide grassroots advocacy group based in Over-the-Rhine, counters that recommendations like these are necessary to prevent racial and geographic bias in death penalty sentencing.
At the time of the 2007 ABA assessment, defendants whose victims were white were nearly four times more likely to receive a death sentence than those whose victims were black.
“Also, it’s things like, you know, labs that handle DNA evidence should be accredited,” says Alison Smith, OTSE’s Communications Director. “Not relying on unrecorded jailhouse testimony, not executing death row inmates who are mentally ill.”
Smith says the application of the death penalty is often largely dependent on the county prosecutor. Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters is a vocal proponent of the death penalty, and Hamilton County’s 24 individuals currently on death row are the most of any county in the state, followed by Cuyahoga with 22, Lucas 13 and Franklin 11.
At issue too, for the OTSE folks, are the protocol changes with respect to drugs used for lethal injection. In December 2009, Ohio became the first state to use a single-drug method for lethal injections (sodium thiopental). Then in March 2011, Ohio became the first state to use pentobarbital in a single-drug method.
In January of this year, after the supply of pentobarbital was in jeopardy because of international reluctance to ship the drug for the purposes of capital punishment, Ohio became the first state to use an untested two-drug cocktail featuring midazolam and hydromorphone. That method was used on Dennis McGuire, in what one witness called a “ghastly” and “horrendous” event. McGuire took more than 20 minutes to die and made choking and snorting noises throughout.
Though the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction concluded, somehow, that McGuire did not suffer any pain, they nevertheless will significantly increase the dosage for the next execution (50 mg of midazolam, up from 10 mg, and 50 mg of hydromorphone, up from 40 mg).
“If it went so perfectly, why do they need to change the dosage?” asks OTSE’s Smith. She says the ongoing protocol changes should be reason enough to seriously review capital punishment procedures and that Ohio has changed lethal injection protocol seven times over the course of the past four years.
Though OTSE’s ultimate goal, obviously, is the abolition of the death penalty, they feel that a positive first step is mindful application.
John Oliver observed on his new HBO television program Last Week Tonight that the United States, along with Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and China, is responsible for 82 percent of the world’s executions.
“Any list that includes Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and China” is not a list you want to be on, he concluded.
DEATH PENALTY FACTS
States to recently abolish death penalty: Maryland (2013), Connecticut (2012), Illinois (2011), New Mexico (2009), New York (2007), New Jersey (2007).
A total of 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, have abolished capital punishment. Michigan was the first, in 1846.
As of April 29, the United States had executed 20 people in 2014, all by lethal injection and all taking place in five states: Texas (7), Florida (5), Missouri (4), Oklahoma (3) and Ohio (1).
Of the 20 people executed this year (19 men, 1 woman), not one had been on death row for less than 10 years.
4%: Estimated number of death row inmates who are innocent.
137: Number of people currently on death row in Ohio.
53: People executed by the state of Ohio since 1999.
6: Number of former inmates on Ohio death row who have been exonerated since 1973.
142: Total number of former death row inmates who have been exonerated nationwide since 1973. ©