Ohio being cautious after court ruling

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ohio officials have been less swift and less aggressive than leaders from some other states at moving to restart executions after a U.S. Supreme Court decision ended a seven-month national pause to killing inmates.

Ohio, which not long ago had one of the nation’s busiest death chambers, is led by a governor who has said he is not comfortable with the death penalty and top law enforcement officer who has said he thinks “we can do better” in applying it.

Gov. Ted Strickland has the power to cancel or delay death sentences, and Attorney General Marc Dann’s office fights against death row inmates’ appeals.

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Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided April 16 to allow Kentucky’s lethal injection process that is similar to the one used in Ohio, Texas and a few other states have already scheduled executions. In Mississippi, the attorney general has petitioned the state’s high court to set a date for one inmate.

And governors in states such as Florida have said the execution process should now resume.

Ohio has not set any execution dates yet, and top officials have made no public requests for quick action.

The speed at which Ohio’s death-penalty cases move forward depends on how quickly and forcefully Ohio officials respond, said Doug Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University.

Strickland’s lawyers are still reviewing the federal court decision. And unlike some governors, Strickland has not made a definitive public statement about what he believes the case means. Ohio’s lethal injection procedure still is being challenged in a lawsuit.

After the Supreme Court decision came out, this is what Strickland said about applying it to Ohio: “You would just think that because the methodology is quite similar that the legal outcome would be similar as well. But I just don’t want to make that assumption without having a little deeper understanding about what they said.”

Contrast that with what Charlie Crist, the Republican governor of Florida, said when praising the court’s ruling: “Justice delayed is justice denied, and an awful lot of families of the victims have been waiting for justice to be done, and so that’s certainly an important factor.” Crist said he asked his lawyers to provide him with death warrants to consider signing, after which execution dates would follow.

Dann has not made any public statements about what the Supreme Court decision means for Ohio. But the attorney general believes the ruling buoyed Ohio’s lethal injection procedure — which, like Kentucky’s, uses a three-drug regimen to sedate, paralyze and kill.

Dann’s office is trying to coordinate with county prosecutors on cases that will begin moving forward, preparing to help them with any legal arguments that come from the other side, said Zach Swisher, chief of the criminal division in Dann’s office.

“Because the process used in Kentucky is substantially similar to that in Ohio, we’re looking at it that it’s likely the process in Ohio will also be found constitutional,” Swisher said.

Stephen Majors is a reporter for The Associated Press.