Thursday, May 24, 2018
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What went wrong?

State officials must determine how a death-row inmate was able to kill himself days before his scheduled execution

In 1987, 18-year-old Billy Slagle stabbed a neighbor, Mari Anne Pope, 17 times with scissors during a burglary in her Cleveland home. She was baby-sitting two children; one witnessed her murder. Slagle was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection three days ago.

Instead, Slagle hanged himself in his cell at Chillicothe Correctional Institution early Sunday. Few Ohioans will mourn that outcome, but it should not have been left to him to decide.

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The circumstances of Slagle’s death, and of the appeals process that preceded it, demand a thorough official review that goes beyond the standard autopsy. The episode provides a critical opportunity to determine how well the state is carrying out its system of capital punishment.

A state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spokesman said, vaguely, that Slagle used “an item of permissible property” to kill himself. He had not yet been placed on round-the-clock suicide watch, which begins 72 hours before an execution. At the least, state officials need to examine whether that period should be extended.

Slagle’s lawyers were working to stop his execution. One of them told the Columbus Dispatch they had just learned from the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office that the lawyers who represented Slagle at his trial had not told him of a possible plea bargain that could have spared him from execution and even made him eligible for parole after 30 years. His current lawyers said they had not informed Slagle about that development and did not know he was contemplating suicide.

Gov. John Kasich and the state parole board evidently were not aware of the plea offer when they refused last month to grant Slagle clemency, which could have converted his death sentence to life without parole. A review ought to determine why the information was so late in emerging.

Cuuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty had argued for sparing Slagle’s life. If the case were heard today, he told the parole board, jurors who had the option of sentencing him to life without parole would have been unlikely to invoke the death penalty; his office probably would not have sought execution.

Slagle’s current lawyers noted that when he murdered Ms. Pope, he was barely old enough to be subject to execution in Ohio. They argued that his trial lawyers did not adequately offer evidence of his history of fetal alcohol exposure and drug addiction.

A federal judge who reviewed Slagle’s conviction and other death-penalty cases in 2011 temporarily halted executions in Ohio, accusing the state of inconsistency in carrying out the death penalty. A study of Slagle’s case could inform the work of a state task force that is examining the capital-punishment system.

This is not an argument for abolishing the death penalty in Ohio. Rather, it is an argument for consistent, transparent application of the ultimate, irreversible punishment. If the state fell short of that responsibility in Slagle’s death, Ohioans deserve to know that.

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