Death penalty debate continues

WARREN — Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins said it may be premature for people opposed to the death penalty to call it dead in Ohio.

“In Trumbull County, the system works and due process takes place daily with judges and jurors doing their jobs every day,” Watkins said. “Every poll in Ohio and the U.S. since I have been prosecutor in 1984 … shows a majority of citizens supporting the death penalty in Ohio and most of the United States. Some states have repealed the death penalty, but under the United States Constitution, it is not cruel and unusual punishment to have and use the death penalty for murders.”

Kevin Werner, executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions, disagrees, saying, in part, an execution in Ohio hasn’t been carried out in more than three years after the process was suspended because of legal challenges over how the state puts people to death.

“Ohioans accept that capital punishment is coming to an end. Our state and county coffers will welcome the cost savings and more sound public policy,” Werner said.

Ohio suffered a blow Thursday when a federal appeals court rejected the state’s new three-drug lethal injection process.

In a 2-1 decision, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati found the proposed use of a contested sedative — midazolam — unconstitutional. The court also ruled Ohio’s planned use of two other drugs the state abandoned years ago prevents their reintroduction in a new execution system.

Executions have been on hold since January 2014, when inmate Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die under a never-before-tried two-drug method that began with midazolam. Ohio announced its three-drug method in October.

An appeal is likely. Options included asking the full appeals court to consider the case or appealing straight to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.

Said Werner, “The death penalty system in Ohio is collapsing in nearly every measurable way. The trends we see are striking. Ohioans are choosing life sentences as the appropriate punishment for these worst-of-the-worst crimes.”

Indictments containing the possibility of death as punishment were down in Ohio 30 percent in 2016 compared to the year before, according to a news release from the anti-execution group. Information from the attorney general’s office shows four new death sentences were added in Ohio, but three were removed for resentencing or retrial.

Also, figures from the office show six counties with a high number of inmates on death row — Trumbull, Mahoning, Hamilton, Lucas, Stark and Summit — did not file a new death penalty case in 2016.

But in March, capital murder charges were filed against Nasser Hamad of Howland, who is accused of killing two and wounding three others March 25 at his home.

In Mahoning County, capital defendant Robert Seman’s trial, which has been moved because of difficulties in seating an impartial jury, will start this month in Portage County. Seman is accused of killing three while setting fire to a Youngstown home. He was indicted in 2015.

There are 139 people on Ohio’s death row, including one woman, Donna Roberts of Trumbull County. Twenty-five executions are scheduled in Ohio in the next four years, including Mahoning County’s John Drummond, who is scheduled to die Sept. 17, 2020. The next execution in Ohio is scheduled for May 10.

Opponents say there are trends that show judges and juries are choosing options other than death. Between 2012 and 2015, Ohio prosecutors sought the death penalty in 122 cases, according to the Ohio Supreme Court’s Capital Indictment Table. While death penalty cases from this time period produced nine new death sentences, most concluded with alternative sentences.

Watkins, however, has another take on the numbers.

“Because we have individualized sentencing, no two defendants are ever treated the same. This is as it should be. Therefore, results will vary as would be expected,” Watkins said.

Trumbull County statistics bear that out. There was an 11-year gap between Roberts’ sentence in 2003 and David Martin’s death penalty conviction. Assistant Trumbull County Prosecutor LuWayne Annos said juries have recommended the death sentence in five cases — Sean Carter, Stanley Adams, Nate Jackson, Roberts and Martin — since the legislature gave an option of life without parole in capital cases.

Since July 1, 1996, six capital murder defendants were sentenced to life without parole after juries in Trumbull County were given the ability to make that recommendation.

But, “the real question is how many more years will we tolerate the enormous costs, the bias, and the risk of executing innocent people?” Werner said.

Watkins said he would rather look at an issue of fairness.

“Some would say that it would be unfair to execute one robber who was caught leaving the scene of a murder when the accomplice got away and never was caught,” Watkins said. “I would say it is only unfair to the victim and society that the other escaped justice.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.