Death penalty protesters spread message in Warren

WARREN — As they held up signs on Courthouse Square condemning state-sponsored executions, a group of women and men grew silent and bowed their heads at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

At that moment, Gary Otte, 45, was being put to death at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville for the 1992 killings of Robert Wasikowski and Sharon Kostura outside of Cleveland.

“We aren’t out here because we have any sympathy for his actions. We strongly condemn what he did,” said Pat Rogan, organizer of the eight-person protest. “We understand the severity of his actions and believe the state has a right to punish him.”

However, there is a difference between revenge and justice, Rogan said.

Most of the participants were there because their religious beliefs drive them to support a natural life cycle, from birth to natural death, including Catholics, Quakers and Universal Unitarians, Rogan said.

On top of their religious beliefs, she said the group believes the system that puts people to death can be unfair.

“It isn’t the worst of the worst who gets put to death. It is usually the poorest of the poorest. You are more likely to get the death penalty for killing a white person, not for killing a person of color. It’s just not a fair system,” Rogan said.

A life sentence makes more sense financially, ethically and avoids the possibility of handing down the ultimate sentence in an imperfect system, Rogan said.

Alice and Staughton Lynd of Niles are Quakers and attorneys and have been focused on the death penalty issue for years.

“I have been appalled by the death penalty since I first learned of it,” Staughton Lynd said. “I couldn’t believe it existed, it is a terrible thing.”

The Lynds have studied several death row cases, including the 1993 Lucasville riot that led to death sentences for five people authorities said were responsible for 10 deaths during the 10-day riot.

Staughton Lynd said he has often found shoddy evidence at the center of prosecutors’ cases and found they relied on the testimony of people whose stories did not match medical examination findings.

Alice Lynd said eyewitness testimony can be faulty, and state-sponsored executions should not be dependent on the reliability of someone’s memory. Defendants may refuse to take plea bargains because they are truly innocent and find themselves at the mercy of a jury, Lynd said.

But juries are often biased toward the prosecution, figuring the state wouldn’t go through the expense of a trial if it weren’t sure, Alice Lynd said.

And, “The definition of aggravated murder is intent to cause death with prior planning. That’s exactly what execution is,” Alice Lynd said. “Think of that, a man sitting there counting down the minutes to his death.”

Rogan said she has visited the “death house” on the day of an execution.

“It is surreal. The corrections officers are so friendly and accommodating — asking him if there is anything he needs, anything he wants. It is unnerving. The officers are just doing their jobs, and they are great people I have a lot of respect for. But it isn’t fair to the corrections officers, to force them to participate in a murder,” Rogan said.