Legislation Seeking to End Ohio's Death Penalty Coming to State Senate

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is putting forth the bill as other state elected officials grapple with whether Ohio should continue executions.

Legislation Seeking to End Ohio's Death Penalty Coming to State Senate

A bipartisan group of state senators is sponsoring legislation seeking to end Ohio's death penalty, supporters announced at a news conference today.

State Sens. Nickie J. Antonio, a Democrat, and Peggy Lehner, a Republican, are joint sponsors of the legislation. Republican State Sen. Kristina Roegner will be a co-sponsor. 

Antonio says she and others have been working for almost a decade to abolish the death penalty in the state.

"It's time for the state of Ohio to take the compassionate, pragmatic and economically prudent step to abolish the death penalty, which has been found to be expensive, impractical, unjust, inhumane and frankly, often erroneous," Antonio said today. "It's a punishment that has been shown to be administered with disparities across economic and racial lines, as well as failing to be a deterrent to violent crime."

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, supports the measure. He said disparities he saw during his time as governor have stuck with him.

"It's final," Strickland said. "You can't correct a mistake. I am convinced that if we continue to impose this penalty, we will at some point, at some place, at some time take the life of an innocent person. Our criminal justice system is not perfect. That means we should never impose this penalty on one of our fellow human beings." 

Roegner, a conservative, says she was "out of her comfort zone," but that her faith has changed her position on the issue of capital punishment. Though she stressed those convicted of crimes like murder should be punished, she said her pro-life beliefs mean she can no longer support executions.

"When I came to the General Assembly, I was for the death penalty," she said. "I supported capital punishment. I believed that if you committed a heinous crime and were guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt, you deserve to die. But here I am… it was my heart that changed. We are all sinners and we all fall short of the glory of God and we all are in need of redemption."

Other conservatives, including a new group calling itself Ohio Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, have also spoken up about capital punishment.

Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice & Policy Center also supports the legislation. The group's policy director, Kevin Werner, pointed out data he said show flaws in the system. 

Death penalty cases cost taxpayers 10 times the amount non-capital cases cost, he said at today's news conference. Most convicted of capital crimes have long experiences with trauma, poverty abuse and addiction.

Werner said nine inmates on death row have been exonerated after spending a collective 200 years in prison.

"I doubt that those nine individuals are a full accounting of people who we have wrongfully convicted and sent to death," Werner said. 

Antonio says she's working with House Republicans and Democrats on companion legislation in that body.

The legislation comes as state elected officials find themselves at an impasse as it relates to the death penalty — and as some Republicans in the Ohio House express openness to at least considering repealing the punishment.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced in late January that the state will delay three more executions originally set for this year — yet another set of reprieves as the state searches for a solution to problems with its lethal injection execution methods. 

DeWine's office acknowledged that difficulty obtaining a controversial execution drug contributed to the reprieves. In October last year, DeWine delayed two other executions. Ohio still has two-dozen executions scheduled through 2024 — though there is no clear path forward for carrying them out as of now.

Six years ago, Ohio prison employees injected convicted killer Dennis McGuire with a two-drug cocktail that was supposed to end his life quickly and painlessly.

It took 26 minutes for the mixture of hydromorphone and midazolam to kill McGuire — the longest execution since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999 — and witnesses reported the condemned man loudly gasping for air.

The incident sparked court challenges claiming the drug cocktail constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution and eventually led the state to issue a moratorium on executions until it could find a new cocktail of lethal drugs that is more humane. But the choice it settled on — which still contains the controversial drug midazolam — is now being questioned.

Midazolam can cause sensations similar to drowning, triggering an inmate's lungs to fill with fluid, a federal judge in Dayton pointed out earlier this year while expressing concerns the execution method could be unconstitutional.

Ohio officials are unable to secure the drugs necessary to put inmates to death via lethal injection, DeWine announced last August, and must cease using them or risk being unable to buy the drugs for other purposes. Companies that sell the drugs have balked at the state using them for executions without telling them they were doing so and have threatened to cut off all sales to Ohio if executions using the substances continue. That could impact entities such as the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the Department of Youth Services, the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and others.

As the state struggles to find drugs for lethal executions, Republicans in the Ohio House of Representatives are discussing an end to the state's death penalty laws, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder said late last year.

“We have been talking about, you know, is there support today to get rid of the death penalty or not," Householder told media outlets at the capital in December. "We’ve been having those discussions.” 

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