Ohio’s Flippers on the Death Penalty

Originally published October 1, 2017 in the Columbus Free Press

Politicians reversing themselves on key policy positions is often portrayed as weakness. Governor John Kasich has surprised both Republicans and Democrats by taking principled positions that directly contravene the positions of his party — most notably on health care and immigration reforms. Whatever else you might think of him, it’s a hard sell to call Governor Kasich weak.

This makes it all the more puzzling that Kasich recently allowed executions to resume in Ohio after a 3.5-year legal battle over lethal injection protocols. We know Kasich does not like the death penalty. He has taken a number of opportunities to push back executions or to use his power of clemency to set aside death sentences.

Governor Kasich has the perfect excuse to stop executions and keep them from resuming through the end of his term. The system is demonstrably broken. This is acknowledged by the experts, and fixes are clearly articulated. All but one of the most significant of the 56 recommendations in the 2014 report of the Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty have yet to be considered by the legislature. SB40 and HB81, bills prohibiting the execution of defendants with specific severe mental illnesses, are moving forward. But most recommendations are still on the shelf.

Kasich and his advisors seem to be stuck in their thinking that in order to maintain a conservative base of support, he must carry out executions. It’s not just political lefties who want to end executions. In fact, no other state provides such a high-powered cadre of former supporters of capital punishment than Ohio.

Each of the following individuals will stand with the governor the day he announces his refusal to carry out more executions.

The Author of Ohio’s Death Penalty Law: First among many, retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer. Widely regarded as the primary author of Ohio’s death penalty law. In 2011, he wrote, “I helped craft the law, and I have helped enforce it. From my rather unique perspective, I have come to the conclusion that we are not well served by our ongoing attachment to capital punishment. Why the change? In short, because the death penalty law is not being applied as we originally intended.”

Pfeifer is no softy. He continued, “But life without parole now offers us a viable alternative to the death penalty, and it’s an option that can satisfy our desire to punish killers for their crimes. There are, however, dozens of inmates on death row who were convicted before that option was available. How many of them would have been sentenced to death if the life-without-parole option had been available at the time? No one knows. All we know is that there are many people who will be put to death because they were convicted at the wrong time.”

THIS. As a state legislator, Paul Pfeifer helped write and championed passage of Ohio’s death penalty law. As he was sworn in after being re-elected to the Ohio Supreme Court, he turned to the Governor and declared “It is time to abolish Ohio’s death penalty.” He has since spoken out repeatedly in support of abolition.

Ohio’s former Governor: Bob Taft is not yet ready to end executions, but with 24 executions on his watch as Governor, he has had a lot of experience on the issue. Now he is able to look back and see what needs to be fixed. He recently called for passage of the mental illness bill, and elimination of the felony murder rule — both among the 56 Task Force recommendations.

Former Attorneys General: Jim Petro had 18 executions on his watch as Attorney General. Then he helped free an innocent man whom the state wanted to execute. He recently completed his term on the board of Ohioans to Stop Executions. Together with Lee Fisher, who still supports executions, earlier this summer they wrote a joint op-ed calling on Governor Kasich to not resume executions until the Task Force recommendations are implemented.

Former Executioners: Reginald Wilkinson and Terry Collins are the two most recent directors of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Between them they executed more than 40 Ohio killers. Both joined Ohioans to Stop Executions soon after their retirement. When Collins died in 2016, headlines noted his post-retirement abolitionist activism. Both maintain that executions are not necessary to hold killers accountable or to keep prison workers and the public safe. They also note the emotional toll executions take on those who must carry them out.

Another retired pro-death penalty Supreme Court Justice, Eve Stanton, is the champion on the mental illness bill. We have 13 men who Ohio tried to kill in death penalty trials who were later exonerated and freed — nine of them from death row. Numerous murder victim family members and victim advocates ready to stand with Governor Kasich to say that executions are not what homicide survivors need.

Governor Kasich. We’ve got your back on this. Lead.

Abraham Bonowitz is Co-Director of DeathPenaltyAction.org and the State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Amnesty International USA. He also consults with Ohioans to Stop Executions.

A version of this article was originally published in the Columbus Free Press: October 2017 issue