News: The Perfect Murder

Ohio can't seem to pull off painless execution

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Woodrow J. Hinton

Coverage of a hearing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court last month referred to a "death penalty case," but the case isn't going to make much difference in efforts to abolish the death penalty. The case concerns the constitutionality of lethal injection, considered by some a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

"It addresses a very, very narrow aspect of the death penalty," says Kevin Werner, statewide coordinator for Ohioans to Stop Executions.

He and Julie Przybysz, a staff member at the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center in Over-the-Rhine, attended the January convention of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, where they say the case wasn't a big topic for discussion. The argument at the heart of the case is somewhat distasteful, she says.

"The lawyers that argued this before the Supreme Court were arguing that there is a humane way to kill somebody," Przybysz says.

It's conceivably possible to kill someone in a humane manner if all conditions are perfect, but Ohio has trouble accomplishing that, according to Jeffrey Gamso, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio (ACLU). He represents two defendants challenging lethal injection on the grounds that prisoners are effectively tortured to death.

The judge in those cases ordered Terry Collins, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, to provide detailed information on how Ohio executes people. Most of the details in the 632-page binder are available on the ACLU's Web site (

"If everything works exactly the way that it's supposed to ... and all of the doctors pretty much agree about this, if everything goes perfectly, then you can probably execute someone on this system without causing them extraordinary amounts of pain," Gamso says.

The problem is executions often don't "go perfectly."

The state has three employees who are "medically trained" to execute people, Gamso says. Two are EMTs; the state withheld the specific training of the third.

"I've been told none of them are doctors and nurses," Gamso says. "It's one thing to be technically qualified to do something under the law. It's something else ... if everything doesn't go perfectly. We see that it wouldn't have taken them an hour and 53 minutes to kill Chris Newton last year ... or 87 minutes to kill Joe Clark if they knew what they were doing."

The documents, including minute-by-minute records of prisoners' last hours, could be almost comical if the results weren't so dire.

"The way it is determined that the guy is fully anesthetized is that Terry Collins eyeballs (him)," Gamso says. He chuckles before going on. "And of course Terry Collins is a trained surgeon and an anesthetician, along with being the director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. That's a joke. ... When Terry decides he's fully anesthetized, he buttons his coat — and that's the signal to start pumping the poison."

Gamso says the best outcome would be a ruling that lethal injection violates the Ohio Constitution, so execution won't be an option for his clients. That in itself wouldn't end capital punishment.

"But it goes a long way toward saying what we really know: It's hard to kill people," he says.

Painless death is difficult to achieve.

"The guillotine was invented to do that. ... The goal was to come up with a quick and painless way of executing people," Gamso says. "It turns out that the guillotine is horribly gruesome and grotesque. The electric chair was developed as a less gruesome, more scientific, more painless and nicer method than hanging. The gas chamber was to be a more scientific and peaceful method than hanging or even electrocution. It doesn't work that way.

"It's tough to do this stuff, and it's not that hard to get somebody dead. But to get somebody dead in a way that we can live with as a society is very, very difficult."

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