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Legislative Leaders Discuss Ohio's Death Penalty

photo of Death penalty bed
Death Penalty Bed

As Ohio prisons officials work on a way to continue carrying out executions, House and Senate leaders are considering having deeper discussions on the future of the death penalty.

The last execution in Ohio happened more than a year ago in July 2018.

Since then the state has ran into a number of issues carrying out the death penalty. On one hand the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction says pharmaceutical companies are unwilling to provide drugs for lethal injection – though they have been carried out in other states. The state has had several problematic executions over the years, and a federal judge has called the state's current three-drug method into question.

This has led to Gov. Mike DeWine rescheduling all executions last year and thenthe first three for this year, set to happen in March, April, and May.

Republican House Speaker Larry Householder says his caucus is having an in-depth discussion on the issue and recognizes that Ohio currently has a death penalty law on the books that the state can't enforce. And he admits he’s struggled with his views too.

"It's extremely expensive to put someone to death with all the trials and all the retrials and the things that go along with that. So I look at it from purely a fiscal conservative standpoint and say maybe it's time that we take a look at putting people away for life in prison with no parole," Householder said.

Republican Senate President Larry Obhof says, rather than a moratorium or abolishment, lawmakers have been more focused on the application of the death penalty, such as a bill that would ban executing people with severe mental illness.

"If the question is, are we planning to abolish the death penalty altogether I would say that's an unlikely outcome in the next 12 months. Will the Senate and probably both chambers have substantial discussions about where we want to head overall, I think … yes," Obhof said.

As the state works to determine if it can obtain the drugs it needs for lethal injection, Democratic House Leader Emilia Sykes says it's important to have a bigger conversation on the criminal justice system that leads people to death row.

As Sykes puts it, the system is unfair.

"So I think if we're going to talk about the death penalty and keeping the death penalty we have to talk about the inequities particularly the fact that black and brown defendants are much more likely to be sentenced to death than anyone else. The fact that in a large urban county where you find more black and brown people that inherently makes them much more eligible the death penalty," Sykes said.

An Ohio Supreme Court task force issued 56 recommendations on improving the fairness and administration of capital punishment throughout the state in 2014. Since then, only a handful of those have been put into law.

Democratic Senate Leader Kenny Yuko says the advancement of DNA studies has forced him to reexamine his own stance on capital punishment.

"I'm not as comfortable with the death penalty in 2020 as I was 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, maybe even 10 years ago. We're seeing time and time again where maybe we rush to those conclusions and all of the sudden I determine that this gentleman is no longer guilty, once we've killed him we can't bring him back," Yuko said.

Obhof says the problem as he sees it is that law enforcement and prosecutors still support having the death penalty as an available option, especially in developing plea deals. Householder argues that putting someone away with a sentence of life without parole can be just as severe.

"I do not know if we're gonna have legislation this year that's left or not. They're extremely mixed as all of us talk about this, but we are talking and that's a good thing," Householder said.

Though there have been several high-profile Republicans who have announced they’ve reconsidered their positions on capital punishment, it’s thought that a repeal of the death penalty is unlikely. Prosecutors have suggested lawmakers could be considering other methods of execution, including nitrogen gas. But DeWine says Ohio is in a standstill until the law surrounding the death penalty changes or the state finds the drugs it needs.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.