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Death row quandary in Ohio: 2 dozen killers with execution dates, but no drugs to kill them

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The state now has two dozen condemned killers with firm execution dates, but with four months before the first one, it still doesn't have the lethal drugs it needs to carry them out.

The state's inability to find drugs has death penalty opponents calling for the end of capital punishment in Ohio. Supporters say the state needs to keep looking or find alternatives to provide justice for killings that are in some cases decades old.

"Rather than frustrate that process it would seem to me their goal ought to be to carry out that process," said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, who's contacted the prisons department, the attorney general and the governor's office for updates on their progress finding drugs.

One option he'd like Ohio to consider: nitrogen gas, approved by Oklahoma in April as an execution alternative.

On Jan. 21, the state is scheduled to execute Ronald Phillips for raping and killing his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in Akron in 1993.

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction "continues to seek all legal means to obtain the drugs necessary to carry out court-ordered executions," said spokeswoman JoEllen Smith, using the same statement the agency has offered for months. "This process has included multiple options."

On Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court set a March 2017 date for Gary Otte of Cleveland for the shooting deaths of two people in a 1992 robbery spree. The remaining executions are scheduled clear into 2019.

The state hasn't executed anyone since January 2014, when condemned killer Dennis McGuire gasped and snorted repeatedly during a 26-minute procedure with a then untried two-drug method.

Ohio abandoned that method in favor of other drugs it now can't find.

Like other states, Ohio has struggled to obtain drugs as pharmaceutical companies discontinued the medications traditionally used by states or put them off limits for executions.

The state's latest attempt, to obtain a federal import license to buy drugs from overseas, ran into a roadblock when the FDA informed Ohio such actions are illegal because the drugs in question aren't FDA-approved.

That's the kind of thing that happens when dates are set without drugs on hand, said Tim Young, the state public defender.

"That continual setting of dates seems to bring to bear unfortunate pressure to drive the choices with untested drugs, untested processes," he said.

Gov. said other states won't give Ohio their drugs and lawsuits may tie up attempts to import approved drugs. But he said there's still time before the January execution.

"I want to continue forward with the death penalty, but if I don't have the drugs it becomes very difficult," Kasich said.

Ohio appears to have the most killers with execution dates because of the state's system for scheduling them. Texas, which still leads the nation in the number of executions annually, sets dates a maximum of 90 days out. Missouri, which has a similar system, has a maximum 60-day window which extends up to 120 days next year.

Last week in Arkansas, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge asked Gov. to set execution dates for eight death row inmates. Rutledge had waited until the prison system obtained the three drugs used in the state's new execution protocol, which happened about two months ago.


Associated Press Writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.


Online:

http://www.drc.ohio.gov/public/executionschedule.htm

PHOTO: FILE - In this March 7, 2008, file photo, Ohio Public Defender Tim Young answers questions during an interview with The Associated Press in Columbus, Ohio. Two dozen death row inmates in Ohio now have scheduled execution dates, but the state has been unable so far to obtain lethal drugs used in past executions, which Young says seems to cause pressure to consider untested drugs and execution protocols. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)
FILE - In this March 7, 2008, file photo, Ohio Public Defender Tim Young answers questions during an interview with The Associated Press in Columbus, Ohio. Two dozen death row inmates in Ohio now have scheduled execution dates, but the state has been unable so far to obtain lethal drugs used in past executions, which Young says seems to cause pressure to consider untested drugs and execution protocols. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)

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PHOTO: FILE - In this Feb. 19, 2014, file photo, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien discusses central Ohio homicide cases during a Columbus, Ohio, news conference. Because two dozen death row inmates in Ohio now have scheduled execution dates, but the state has been unable so far to obtain lethal drugs used in past executions, O'Brien says he'd like state officials to consider nitrogen gas, approved by Oklahoma in April. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins, File)
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