Milam’s Musings

By Brett Milam, Online Editor

A narrow majority of Americans still support the death penalty, even with the knowledge that the system could kill an innocent person. Such is unconscionable. The death penalty ought to be permanently outlawed in the United States, starting with Ohio.

Last year, Ohio moved six executions to 2016, meaning there will be no new executions in 2015, shuffled after botching Dennis McGuire’s execution in January 2014. Using new drugs due to the unwillingness of European drug companies to facilitate an execution, the state of Ohio’s concoction of midazolam and hydromorphone took 26 minutes to kill McGuire.

Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican and Williams, a Democrat from Cleveland, are working to at least address the problems plaguing the death penalty in the state. Their co-sponsored bill is the first in a series of three or four working to implement some of 56 recommendations offered by a state task force last year. 

The first bill is primarily focused on procedural issues, like requiring a judge to notify why a claim was granted or denied regarding post-conviction relief. A second bill, expected to be out later this month, would bar the state from executing the mentally ill, according to Kevin Werner, executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE).

In its 2014 report, “A Crumbling Institution: Why Ohio Must Fix Or End the Death Penalty,” OTSE poses the question, “If there is insufficient political will to terminate the death penalty, shouldn’t we fix its many problems?” Indeed. But the most important fact in the report may be that in 2014, three men, Ricky Jackson, Kwame Ajamu and Wiley Bridgeman, were exonerated for the 1975 murder of Harold Franks. These three men were sentenced to die based solely on the witness testimony of a 12-year-old boy. Fortunately, their execution dates were delayed by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Ohio’s death penalty was unconstitutional in 1978. Nevertheless, combined, they spent 105 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. What would justice look like had the Supreme Court not interrupted their impending executions? What would justice look like had the 12-year-old boy not grown up to recant his testimony in 2014?

Looking at the national level, since 1935, as far back as the Pew Research polling goes, Americans have always favored the death penalty more than they’ve opposed it. The high point was in 1995 with 78 percent of Americans favoring execution. While it’s good that support has dropped to 56 percent in the last 20 years, that number is still too high. When Pew leads with the statement, “When someone commits a crime like murder…” then 63 percent of Americans view the death penalty as “morally justified.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 152 inmates on death row across the country have been exonerated since 1973. It’s curious, then, how much of a “margin of error,” are Americans willing to accept? If those men weren’t exonerated, that’s over three deaths a year. And that is presuming no other inmates on death row are, in fact, innocent. Indeed, however, 71 percent of Americans acknowledge that there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death

There is no acceptable margin of error when it comes to death. There is no acceptable level of collateral damage. The bipartisan attempts to reform a broken system undertaken by Seitz and Williams and the folks like Werner at OTSE are welcome, but it’s a losing proposition. The better route is for the United States Supreme Court to step in and rule the death penalty unconstitutional for all the states.

In fact, the Court is hashing it out over lethal injection this week. On Wednesday, the conservative and liberal justices volleyed back and forth over whether new drugs protocols for lethal injection could cause inmate suffering. Justice Elena Kagan offered the best analogy for explaining the deplorable nature of these drugs.

“Suppose that we said, ‘We’re going to burn you at the stake, but before we do, we’re going to use an anesthetic of completely unknown properties and unknown effects. Maybe you won’t feel it, maybe you will. We just can’t tell.’ And you think that that would be OK?” she said.

It would seem for far too long, Americans have let morality burn at the altar of state-sanctioned murder. It’s time for the Supreme Court to put the flames out.