Fit to Live

How Ohio death row inmate Abdul Awkal was saved from execution

Jul 3, 2012 at 9:33 am


hio death row inmate Abdul Awkal wasn’t trying to avoid his execution. He just wanted his meals prepared according to his Muslim faith. 

Awkal contacted attorney David Singleton in 2010 asking for the assistance of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJPC), a Cincinnati non-profit that works to protect the rights of Ohio inmates and reform the criminal justice system. Singleton, executive director of OJPC, says Awkal wanted his food prepared in accordance with Halal, which is the Muslim counterpart to Kosher food preparation. Kosher meals were already being prepared for Jewish inmates, so it was a matter of parity and protecting Awkal’s civil rights.

Part of what the OJPC and Singleton, who is also an assistant professor at Chase College of Law, do is give Chase students the opportunity to handle civil rights cases for prisoners. This is how OJPC, which has never before worked on a death penalty case, became involved. When Singleton went to the prison in Chillicothe to meet Awkal, his visit was initially refused. Awkal thought Singleton was one of his death penalty case lawyers.

“He had no interest in meeting with them,” Singleton says. “He wanted to die.”

Awkal was convicted for the murder of his estranged wife and her brother two decades ago. He knows he killed two people and he remembers the trial, but believes that his execution was ordered by the CIA. In Awkal’s world — which is well documented and often self-documented in court documents — Awkal is a hero and has been intimately associated with the planning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In that world, despite receiving a presidential pardon, he was to be executed because he fell out of favor with the CIA.

In a May 21 letter in which Singleton requested that Gov. Kasich grant Awkal clemency, one of Awkal’s many conspiratorial missives is quoted: “The C.I.A. office didn’t send me anyone to talk to me about my peaceful plan in Iraq. But President George W. Bush did send me a message during his televised speech on September 8, 2003. He said in it, ‘those who told us about Lebanon and Somalia, we’re listening.’ I am not sure of his exact quotation. But I’d like to ask you to check it out yourself.”

Singleton worked with Awkal on the issue of his meals and came to know and care about him as a person. Singleton and the OJPC team became the only lawyers Awkal would trust. In April, Awkal was shipped up to Cleveland for a clemency hearing at the direction of his death penalty lawyers even though Awkal was resistant to seeking clemency. Singleton met with Awkal at that time to try and persuade him otherwise.

“I said, ‘I think you know the students and I have come to love you, we care about you and we really hope you will go forward with the clemency hearing.’ He teared up and said he loved us, too,” Singleton says. “Then he said something remarkable and we had not heard him say this before. He said, ‘It’s not going to make a difference for clemency because it’s the CIA that wants to execute me.’ That was really important in terms of the law.”

Singleton explains that a person can be executed when they are mentally ill as long as they understand that they will be executed for the crime they committed.

“But that statement told me he didn’t understand the reason for his execution,” Singleton says. And, this was said at a time when Awkal wanted to die and had no motivation for subterfuge, says Singleton.

“I had no doubt what he said to me was what he actually believed, because we had developed this relationship where he felt comfortable talking to me,” Singleton says.

This was the point at which the OJPC became involved in the Awkal’s death penalty defense. Singleton and some of the students working with him testified at the clemency hearing.

The OJPC brought in experts to testify, and by June 5 a trial judge finally ruled that there was probable cause to believe that Awkal was not competent to be executed. Still, the Ohio Supreme Court did not grant a stay of execution. This brought Awkal to within 14 hours of his execution, which had been scheduled for later the same day. The execution was called off after Gov. Kasich issued a two-week reprieve. The Ohio Supreme Court finally ordered an indefinite stay of execution after Kasich issued the reprieve. 

Awkal, imprisoned and not available for comment, authorized Singleton to tell his story. It’s an interesting point that Awkal was found not competent to be executed but still is considered competent to make decisions about his case and the media. Awkal has been found to be rational and can make decisions, but only within the confines of his delusion.

Singleton recalls his visit to the prison on that day. He had told Awkal’s family that he was not hopeful about the outcome, and just as he uttered these words the warden pulled him aside and let him know about the reprieve.

“There’s no doubt he is dead today had we not been involved,” Singleton says. 

Singleton says at the heart of the work he did with Awkal was a relationship of trust. Seeing Awkal as a person rather than as a convict was key. 

“This victory for him has been priceless, not just for him but for us,” Singleton says. “Someone that we’ve come to like despite his past, when you’re able to help someone live, it’s God work.”

Awkal’s execution is on indefinite hold. There can be no execution unless Awkal is ruled mentally competent or the state wins its appeal against the current ruling in Ohio court.