Cruel and unusual punishment: Executions temporarily halted in Ohio

Anti-death penalty activists have been fighting for decades in an uphill battle to end the barbaric and racist practice of executions, but the movement has been making slow but steady progress. Last year Washington became the 20th state to ban executions. Polls show public support for the death penalty continues to decline, with more people than ever convinced it is applied unfairly. (Death Penalty Information Center)

In the latest breakthrough, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine suspended all executions in the state Feb. 21. Previously on Jan. 25, the governor had postponed the Feb. 15 execution date of Warren Keith Henness to Sept. 16.

Ohio had one of the highest rates of executions before 2014. However, there were problems with lethal injection — the preferred killing method that replaced the electric chair in most death penalty states. Witnesses observed the condemned experiencing severe pain. In 2009 the attempted execution of Romell Broom was botched; Broom survived and remains on death row. Ohio then introduced an untried killing formula combining midazolam and hydromorphone. The first victim, Dennis McGuire, was observed writhing in agony and gasping for air.

For 3½ years there were no executions in Ohio. Then in 2017 a new drug combination was introduced, which still used midazolam. Two people were executed that year, and one — Robert Van Hook — in July 2018.

An autopsy performed on Van Hook revealed that in his last hour of life his lungs filled up with fluid. Attorneys for Henness raised the “cruel and unusual punishment” argument. Federal Magistrate Judge Michael Merz agreed; he called the current protocol a combination of “waterboarding and a chemical fire.” (Youngstown Vindicator, March 3) His ruling prompted DeWine’s decision to halt executions, but only until some more “humane” method of killing is presented. Five other men set to be executed this year have not had their executions cancelled or postponed.

Merz, a seasoned judge who came out of retirement, is not known for progressive rulings. Merz handed down rulings against both Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan and Keith Lamar, who were convicted of capital murder in connection with the 1993 Lucasville prison uprising. His decision reflects the fact that it has become politically harder for states to continue taking lives using the death penalty.

Why now?

Although some polls show a majority of people still support capital punishment in certain cases, that majority is shrinking. One factor is the irrefutable evidence of racist disparity in sentencing. As recently as last year, nearly half of all new death sentences were imposed on people of color. Other factors include the number of people on death row with mental disabilities and the risk of innocent people being executed, which was affirmed by the exoneration of 164 death row prisoners since 1976.

In Ohio, those wrongfully convicted of capital murder include Hasan, Lamar (aka Bomani Shakur), George Skatzes, Nameer Mateen (aka James Were) and Jason Robb. All were falsely accused in the death of a guard, and some in the killing of prisoners, during the Lucasville rebellion. Lamar exhausted his appeals in December and was given an execution date of Nov. 16, 2023. Public meetings, held last year around the 25th anniversary of the rebellion, increased awareness that innocent people still face execution.

In addition, recent scandals have exposed illegal conduct by several states in procuring the fatal drug cocktails. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “States have used secrecy laws to conceal evidence of illegal or improper activity in obtaining lethal-injection drugs, including lying to pharmaceutical companies, contracting with suppliers that have histories of safety violations and swapping drugs with other states.” This has put states in conflict with Big Pharma and has resulted in several lawsuits.

Because of these and other factors, executions dropped last year to a countrywide low of 54, continuing a recent trend.

However, death penalty opponents will not rest. As Ben Turk, administrator for the Lucasville Amnesty website and Facebook page, told Workers World: “I support not only the suspension but also the immediate abolition of the death penalty, but I also caution against replacing it with life without the possibility of parole.

“Greg Curry, one of the Lucasville survivors who narrowly escaped the death penalty (both in court and in extrajudicial efforts of retaliatory staff) is instead serving life without the possibility of parole. If that reform becomes the widespread replacement for the death penalty, this reform will actually lead to more innocent people dying in prison because they’ll have less access to legal redress. We must oppose death by incarceration as strongly as we oppose death by lethal injection.”

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