There hasn’t been a killer put to death in Ohio in 18 months. And the state’s last execution has likely taken place, according to the architect of Ohio’s 1981 death penalty law. But prosecutors say killing off capital punishment entirely would be a mistake.
Ohio’s last execution was in July 2018 – the next one, in March, seems unlikely, since Gov. Mike DeWine has issued eight execution delays since taking office last year.
But there were still six death sentences handed down last year. Lou Tobin with the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association said he’s concerned what would happen if the death penalty were repealed.
“All of the challenges that we see to the death penalty right now will switch to life without parole. And the next thing you know we won't have life without parole either," Tobin said.
Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote the death penalty law and now opposes the way it’s used. But he said he highly doubts lawmakers would go for abolishment.
“I think it'll be a tough sell to get the legislature to repeal the death penalty that’s on the books," Pfeifer said.
Pfeifer, who is now with the Ohio Judicial Conference, admitted the death penalty has been good for one thing – plea bargains, to avoid trials that are painful for the victims’ survivors and costly for the courts.
Tobin agreed, and suggested to make sure a death sentence could followed through, lawmakers should look for new ways to carry out executions.
“The statute should provide for lethal injection, any other method of execution that's been found to be constitutional. And I think we should explore the possibility of using nitrogen gas a protocol that Oklahoma is exploring right now," Tobin said.
Tobin also suggested the federal government or other capital punishment states could help Ohio get lethal injection drugs, or that Ohio should once again allow pharmacies to make those drugs and be shielded from public disclosure. The last time that was permitted, no pharmacies offered to do so. DeWine has cited drug access problems as the reasons for delaying executions.
Pfeifer said ultimately, it is up to the governor, who can delay sentences or commute to life without parole.
Pfeifer recalled a similar situation with the Ohio governor who oversaw the last two executions before the US Supreme Court struck down capital punishment. He noted there was a nine-year gap between those executions in 1963 and the court’s ruling in 1972.
“Jim Rhodes was governor of this state for four terms, for 16 years. But there were two executions when he was brand new [as] governor and then no more happened. He never said he was against the death penalty. It just didn't magically happen.”
Does he think that’s what’s happening now with DeWine? Pfeifer said he can’t say for sure.
“I don't want to presume to know what our current governor thinks personally. My guess is that he's he does not welcome the thought he is a devout Catholic. The Catholic Church is opposed to the death penalty," Pfeifer said. "I would think that he does not welcome the thought of having an execution occur on his watch and it wouldn't surprise me that it just does not happen.”
There have been 56 executions since the state resumed the death penalty in 1999, after the 1981 statute Pfeifer helped create. And the state is eighth in the country in total number of executions. But Pfeifer said he thinks Ohio has seen its last execution – which he said is a good thing.
For more on this topic and to hear more from Pfeifer and Tobin, check out this week's "The State of Ohio".
NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that the next execution is set for March 2020.