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Published: Friday, 10/9/2009

Capital punishment in Ohio needs serious tweaking

EVEN before my cousin, Ann, was brutally murdered more than two decades ago, I supported the death penalty. Capital punishment renders justice. I believed that then and now.

But lately, executions going awry in Ohio have challenged that assumption. I have no sympathy for the scum on death row. In the days after Ann was found dead of multiple stab wounds in a suburb of Portland, Ore., the disbelief roiling her family turned to rage against the unknown perpetrator. As the years went by, with no break in the case, some of us felt cheated that Ann's killer never got his due for ending her life at 24.

Whenever I read about an inmate facing an execution date, or one who has already met his maker, I put myself in the shoes of the victim's family and imagine their relief. There is no emotional closure for those who have abruptly lost a loved one to homicide, but there is justice for the dead.

That's what I thought until executions in Ohio took a turn for the ridiculous. The state has gained national notoriety for its botched attempts to kill legally.

Delivering death by court-ordered decree by lethal injection has become a bizarre test for Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Lately it has taken marathon efforts to administer injections to some of the condemned whose prior drug habits have apparently left them with unsuitable veins for needles.

Last month, medical technicians searched for suitable veins on Romell Broom, sentenced to die for raping and murdering a Cleveland teenager. Two hours later, after trying as many as 18 times to find a decent portal, the team gave up. In one of the stranger moments, the doomed guy futilely tried to aid his would-be executioners. Eventually Gov. Ted Strickland stopped the nonsense and granted temporary reprieves to other condemned inmates as courts examine the state's lethal-injection procedure - again.

The same protocol was reviewed in 2006 after similar complications occurred with another execution. Instead of the usual 10 to 15 minutes, it took 90 minutes to finally kill Joseph Lewis Clark, who robbed and murdered a Toledo gas station clerk in 1998.

That awkward scene prompted a change in Ohio's death penalty etiquette where the warden nudges and calls out to the condemned prisoner after the chemicals are injected to ensure that the prisoner is unconscious. But first the execution team needs to access the inmate's veins and, in some cases, that can take forever.

Then the argument turns to whether working on a condemned inmate's arms for long periods constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Would the same offense apply to an inmate sent back to his cell after an aborted execution only to be scheduled for the same routine again in a week?

More importantly, is this the kind of legalized killing Ohioans want continued? If we can't execute inmates humanely on a consistent basis, why waste the time and invite constitutional grievances on a capital punishment that is problematic?

One botched execution is an anomaly. More than one is an abomination that reflects poorly on those who allow it to happen. That's us. By now it should be apparent that the state's capital punishment system needs more than a little reworking. It needs a moratorium until Ohio leaders and legal minds can weigh in on its worth to the state.

A prolonged, uncertain deliverance of the death penalty on top of the years death row inmates spend delaying fate through myriad appeals and challenges does nothing to advance justice for the victims or their families. Better the guilty should be sentenced to rot in prison for life without parole.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: johanek@theblade.com



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