Fault Lines
24 May 2017

Ohio Plans To Resume Executions

January 17, 2017 (Fault Lines) – The death-row-prison staff says that they’ve never had anyone fight or struggle on their way to the Death House. Executions are highly scripted events. The prison staff seems to think that this script helps everything go smoothly.

Perhaps it’s just that the inmate has had years to come to terms with the inevitable. At the time of conviction, an execution date is announced, but it’s not a real date. The inmate files a motion to have it vacated so all the appeals, post-conviction, and habeas proceedings can be completed. By the time a decade or two has passed, a lot of inmates want (or at least think they want) to be executed rather than spend life inside. Some get used to institutional life, maybe giving a structure and predictability previously unknown. But eventually everything gets boring—even masturbation. Life inside ain’t no picnic, especially when Death Row used to be housed at the state supermax.

The machinery of death begins to gear up about ninety days before a scheduled execution. The inmate has his (or rarely, her) last chance to convince the Parole Board and the Governor that the death sentence should be commuted. Counsel for the inmate prepares briefs, arguments, and arranges to have favorable witnesses send letters or appear at the hearing. Unlike trial court proceedings, the inmate never goes anywhere. The Board interviews the inmate via video hook up, and on the day of the parole board hearing, the inmate sits and waits for the attorneys to call. Until that call, they have no idea how it went.

Regardless of what the Board recommends, it’s ultimately in the Governor’s hand; no recommendation is binding. Typically, a positive recommendation precedes a commutation, but if the Governor disagrees, so sorry for you.  Meanwhile, the prison officials follow their protocol. This means that even inmates who receive a recommendation for clemency are treated like those that aren’t. Until the Governor grants a commutation, it’s presumed that the execution is on. Inmates are caught in a state of simultaneous dread and hope. And there is nothing else to do all day but ruminate about the whole thing.

People wrongly assume that Death Row and the Ohio Death House are at the same place; they are not. The Death House is in Lucasville, and Death Row is housed at Chillicothe. Part of the protocol is getting the inmate transported from one prison to the last one that they will ever see. Usually if the Governor doesn’t intervene before the transport, then the execution will likely happen. Meanwhile, the inmate prepares for death, following the protocol. Family visits occur, the final meals are ordered, there is a medical evaluation, and the inmate is placed into solitary, before execution.

The Death House got its name for the obvious reason and because it’s a square, concrete house-like building deep inside the prison. It’s almost like the castle keep inside the walls of a concrete and metal fortress. A sign outside the prison announcing “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” would feel completely appropriate. Besides what is necessary to carry out executions, there are also viewing areas for the victim’s and inmate’s family, although sometimes the viewing area is empty, leaving the inmate to apologize to an empty room. Usually the inmate’s lawyer is there and sometimes another sits nearby waiting for a phone call from the governor or courts, which never comes.

At the end of this inevitable process moving at glacial speeds, there’s one less person in the world. Death can happen suddenly or inevitably, but nowhere except places like the Death House can the time of death be announced ahead of time. Maybe it’s justice; maybe it balances out the cosmic scales. But at that moment, someone is dead because the State wanted his death. And it accomplished it through a method whereby the execution is accepted as inevitable by the inmate. Moreover, the execution lacks any blood or screams—it’s like euthanizing the old, infirm family dog. It’s an orderly clinical process at the end of an orderly legal one. And someone is dead.

While no one may actively fight being strapped to the gurney, some inmates have committed suicide. You might think that the means don’t matter so long as the death happens, but you’d be wrong. There’s a plan and suicide isn’t part of the plan. Suicide is viewed as an institutional failure. Steps are taken to mitigate that possibility as much as possible. And failing to commit suicide gets you executed, while making your last few days even more uncomfortable. You’re not given a second chance at self-help.

Maybe there isn’t active resistance, but there has arguably been passive resistance. At least one inmate found a way to avoid execution through dehydration, but even he was told he would have to face the needle again. Making your veins difficult to find was really a clever idea that worked. Boredom and necessity can be inspiring.

Ohio used to allow inmates to choose their method of execution. But electrocution was eventually deemed inhumane; so, the state switched to exclusively lethal injection in 2001. Initially, Ohio had a three-drug protocol, intended to put the inmate to sleep, paralyze the inmate (mostly for the benefit of those watching), and then stop the inmate’s heart. Plus, there was a standby single drug, in the event the three-drug method failed.

Eventually, Ohio went to the single-drug method, due to Broom’s unsuccessful execution, which was later attributed to his purposeful dehydration. Then Ohio switched back to a new three-drug method. This execution didn’t go according to plan, with the inmate allegedly gasping and suffering. There were even accusations that the public defender coached the inmate. This led to the current moratorium on executions, until everyone could be sure that death came gently at the end of a clinical process.

In the background of all of this were legal challenges to lethal injections and drug shortages. In Ohio, this challenge resulted in a federal judge preventing all executions until the new protocol was sorted out. This was compounded by drug shortages. Some companies refused to sell their drugs for use in execution. Others simply stopped manufacturing the drugs. The federal government stepped in too, forbidding the importation of drugs. Frankly, this was a clever tactic by the abolitionists to achieve a de facto abolition of the death penalty. Without the drugs, there cannot be execution by lethal injections. This has managed to slow down the pace of executions, perhaps with the hope that if years go by without executions, the courts or legislatures will end it.

But states have not gone quietly. Some have changed their laws to allow the return of older or untested methods of execution.  For its part, Ohio has made preparations to begin executing inmates again. If the court approves, then Ohio could execute as many as 12 inmates, using the drugs it obtained. Once it does, then the clock will start running. The protocol will resume and the inmates will be modeled into compliant accessories to their own executions. The broad question of reforming the death penalty is a dead letter. The only question left will be whether their deaths will be sufficiently sterile as to not offend our senses. And how will we kill the next man up?

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Jeff Gamso
    17 January 2017 at 9:20 am - Reply

    “The death-row-prison staff says that they’ve never had anyone fight or struggle on their way to the Death House.”

    They may say it, but it’s not true. January 14, 2004:

    It took four guards (some reports say six, but I think that’s wrong) to carry a struggling and fighting and screaming Lewis Williams to the death house at Lucasville. Nine (!) guards had to work to get him strapped down. All while he kept struggling and insisting that he was factually innocent.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2004/jan/15/nation/na-execute15

    http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/node/324

  • Adam
    17 January 2017 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    “a positive recommendation PRECEDES a commutation”

    shg, it’s like you’re too busy being a practicing lawyer and writing two articles a day to copyedit everyone else, too!

    • shg
      17 January 2017 at 1:39 pm - Reply

      Dammit. I’m such a slacker.