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Ohio's Death Penalty Law Author Doesn't Expect There Will Be Another Execution

a photo of a correctional facility in southern Ohio
Security systems surround the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, where executions are performed.

There hasn’t been a killer put to death in Ohio in 18 months. And the state’s last execution has likely taken place, according to the architect of Ohio’s 1981 death penalty law. But prosecutors said killing off capital punishment entirely would be a mistake.

Ohio’s last execution was in July 2018 – the next one, in July, seems unlikely, since Gov. Mike DeWine has issued eight execution delays since taking office last year. But there were still six death sentences handed down last year. Lou Tobin with the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association said he’s concerned what would happen if the death penalty were repealed.

“All of the challenges that we see to the death penalty right now will switch to life without parole. And the next thing you know we won't have life without parole either.”

Mixed feelings
Polls are mixed on public backing of the death penalty, and some Republicans conservatives, including House Speaker Larry Householder, have said their support is waning or is gone. Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote the death penalty law and now opposes the way it’s used. But he said he highly doubts lawmakers would go for abolishment.

“I think it'll be a tough sell to get the legislature to repeal the death penalty that’s on the books.”

But Pfeifer admits the death penalty has been good for one thing – plea bargains, to avoid trials that are painful for the victims’ survivors and costly for the courts.

Tobin agrees, and suggests to make sure a death sentence could followed through, lawmakers should look for new ways to carry out executions.

“The statute should provide for lethal injection, any other method of execution that's been found to be constitutional. And I think we should explore the possibility of using nitrogen gas a protocol that Oklahoma is exploring right now.”

He also suggests the federal government or other capital punishment states could help Ohio get lethal injection drugs, or that Ohio should once again allow pharmacies to make those drugs and be shielded from public disclosure. The last time that was permitted, no pharmacies offered to do so.

Up to the governor
DeWine has cited drug access problems as the reasons for delaying executions. Pfeifer says ultimately, it is up to the governor, who can delay sentences or commute to life without parole. He recalls a similar situation with the Ohio governor who oversaw the last two executions before the US Supreme Court struck down capital punishment. He notes there was a nine-year gap between those executions in 1963 and the court’s ruling in 1972.

“Jim Rhodes was governor of this state for four terms, for 16 years. But there were two executions when he was brand new governor and then no more happened. He never said he was against the death penalty. It just didn't magically happen.”

Does he think that’s what’s happening now with DeWine? Pfeifer said he can’t say for sure.

“I don't want to presume to know what our current governor thinks personally. My guess is that he's he does not welcome the thought he is a devout Catholic. The Catholic Church is opposed to the death penalty. I would think that he does not welcome the thought of having an execution occur on his watch and it wouldn't surprise me that it just does not happen.”

The record on executions
There have been 56 executions since the state resumed the death penalty in 1999, after the 1981 statute Pfeifer helped create. And the state is eighth in the country in total number of executions. Pfeifer said he thinks Ohio has seen its last execution – which he said is a good thing.

Karen is a lifelong Ohioan who has served as news director at WCBE-FM, assignment editor/overnight anchor at WBNS-TV, and afternoon drive anchor/assignment editor in WTAM-AM in Cleveland. In addition to her daily reporting for Ohio’s public radio stations, she’s reported for NPR, the BBC, ABC Radio News and other news outlets. She hosts and produces the Statehouse News Bureau’s weekly TV show “The State of Ohio”, which airs on PBS stations statewide. She’s also a frequent guest on WOSU TV’s “Columbus on the Record”, a regular panelist on “The Sound of Ideas” on ideastream in Cleveland, appeared on the inaugural edition of “Face the State” on WBNS-TV and occasionally reports for “PBS Newshour”. She’s often called to moderate debates, including the Columbus Metropolitan Club’s Issue 3/legal marijuana debate and its pre-primary mayoral debate, and the City Club of Cleveland’s US Senate debate in 2012.