Jerome Campbell phoned June 25 from Death Row. I had agreed to witness his execution, scheduled two days later.
Convicted of stabbing to death a 78-year-old man in the West End, Campbell was convinced he was going to die. He had mailed me his final statement, saying he wanted it disclosed to the public. Accompanying the statement in my mailbox at CityBeat was a handmade bracelet of green and navy blue braided yarn, a friendship bracelet Campbell had made.
It wasn't until he phoned that the reality of what I was to witness began to crystallize. I felt embarrassed to consider such trivial details as getting directions and thinking about what to wear. I chose a black dress I'd previously worn to a funeral.
Although the Ohio Parole Board had recommended clemency, Gov. Bob Taft still hadn't made his decision.
The day before the execution, June 26, the Campbell family gathered in the parking lot at his mother's apartment on Linn Street to drive caravan style to Lucasville for a final visit. They were packed for an overnight stay in a hotel near the prison. After 14 years on Death Row, Campbell would be meeting some relatives for the first time -- then saying goodbye.
All appeals to the state courts for a new trial had failed
But no one arrived at his cell to move him. When he asked about the delay, he was told the paperwork wasn't done.
The next sign of good news was a metal food tray. For the past 10 days his meals had arrived on a Styrofoam tray with plastic utensils. The state doesn't want to give a Death Row inmate an opportunity to kill himself. That's the state's job.
Breakfast on the metal tray meant a decision had been made. In a press conference just 20 hours before the execution, Taft granted Campbell clemency, commuting his sentence to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
"The case of Jerome Campbell presents a different set of circumstances than the other eight capital cases in which I have denied requests for commutation," Taft said. "In this case, two important pieces of information have come to light that were not available to the jury at the time the death penalty was imposed." (See Bloody Shoes and Snitches, issue of April 9-15.)
Taft referred to significant new DNA evidence that was unavailable to the jury that convicted Campbell in 1989.
"Although this new evidence does not exonerate Mr. Campbell, it does contradict an impression that was left in the minds of some jurors during the trial," Taft said.
Like the Parole Board, the governor also cited evidence bearing on the credibility of two important prosecution witnesses.
"It is now apparent that two informants who were incarcerated at the time of their testimony were, in fact, interested in seeking more lenient treatment from prosecutors as a result of their testimony," Taft said. "This information was not presented at trial, even though it would have enabled the jurors to more fully assess the veracity of the witnesses' testimony."
Taft concurred with the Parole Board's finding that another outcome in the penalty phase of Campbell's trial was a possibility.
"When such a possibility exists, and in view of the finality of the death penalty, I believe the most responsible course of action is to commute the death sentence," Taft said.
State Sen. Mark Mallory (D-Cincinnati) praised the decision.
"I hope this decision illustrates a future willingness to use a more reasoned approach in implementing the death penalty in Ohio," Mallory said. "The governor has sent a powerful message today that Ohio demands the highest level of certainty when imposing the death penalty. ... The case of Jerome Campbell demonstrates the complexity and seriousness of imposing the death penalty. Ohio should be proud of the governor's landmark decision."
Art Slater, chair of the Political Action Committee of the Ohio NAACP, hopes the commutation of Campbell's death sentence is a first step toward a reexamination of capital punishment in Ohio.
"We will also be pressing for the governor to declare a moratorium on the death penalty," he said.
But Taft's decision is noteworthy precisely because it was based on legal -- rather than political -- concerns, according to Hal Arenstein, president of the Cincinnati Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. He contrasted the case with former Gov. Richard Celeste's grant of clemency to several people on Death Row just before leaving office.
"Taft's decision to grant clemency to Jerome Campbell is historic because it is not based on ideology, as were Celeste's commutations before he left office," Arenstein said. "Taft in the end did not want to take a chance on executing an innocent man. Campbell has a chance at a new trial if his attorneys can show the federal appeals judges that not revealing deals given to the jailhouse snitches is a (constitutional) violation."
That effort is already underway. Defense attorneys Joe Wilhelm and Pamela Prude-Smithers have filed motions with the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court asking for a new trial, arguing Campbell's rights to due process and a fair trial were violated. ©