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Published: Friday, 3/12/2010

It's insane to save death-row inmate only to kill him

UNLIKE other bleeding-heart liberals, I have never opposed the death penalty. In the past, I've written about how my views on capital punishment hardened after my first cousin was murdered.

Anne was only 24 years old when she was viciously stabbed multiple times and left to die on a street a few blocks from her home. Her killer has never been caught. But if that day ever comes, I'd want a life for a life.

Recent events on death row in Ohio have made me doubt my convictions. I've begun to wonder whether state executions, with their complications and cost, are more insane than indispensable.

Not long ago the state made national headlines when it couldn't seem to kill its condemned inmates effectively. Botched attempts to execute inmates by lethal injection were awkward, to say the least.

Executioners at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville struggled to find suitable veins in doomed inmates to administer a three-drug concoction that opponents decried as excruciatingly painful and inhumane.

To avoid more do-over executions, the state adopted a one-drug method and established backup plans in the death chamber, so even inmates with uncooperative portals could receive the single lethal dose. But after the new procedure was tested on three executed inmates, prison officials faced another conundrum.

Just hours before he was to be lethally injected at Lucasville, a death-row inmate reportedly tried to kill himself with a drug overdose. It was the first such dilemma for waiting executioners at the state's death house.

This is where the case for capital punishment gets crazy. Although inmate Lawrence Reynolds was on a "death watch" to prevent him from killing himself before the state could, the Akron man apparently attempted death on his own terms with his own drugs.

He was found unconscious in his cell less than 36 hours before his scheduled execution and rushed to a hospital. He remained in serious condition until the following day, when his medical status was upgraded to stable.

How fortunate that officials at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, where Reynolds is housed, reacted quickly to the alleged suicide attempt. That allowed the medical staff at a Youngstown hospital to treat the patient, who evidently overdosed on prescribed pills, in time.

Ordinarily, someone who survives a life-threatening drug overdose might be kept in the hospital under observation. But that protocol operates on the assumption that the goal is to help that person become stronger, healthier, and better equipped to withstand relapse.

Why apply the same standards to Lawrence Reynolds, a man sentenced to die for killing a neighbor in 1994? Is it not lunacy for doctors to bring him back from the brink of death to make him healthy enough to be executed?

Is it not madness for the state to foot the hospital bill and related medical costs for Reynolds to recover from his apparent drug overdose, just so it can inject him with an overdose of thiopental sodium?

I don't care a whit about Reynolds. He tried to rape a 67-year-old woman before strangling and beating her with a tent pole. He bragged about the murder to friends. He's scum.

But when this inmate's life was in danger, prison guards and medical personnel instinctively tried to save it. The human response to a life-threatening emergency was to challenge death.

We simply can't reconcile ourselves to do what comes naturally in terms of saving lives and what comes collectively from deeply ingrained beliefs about getting our pound of flesh. So why do it?

Why pay to nurse a life back to health a week before the state executes it? Why force the state to pay a small fortune over years of lengthy court appeals when there are alternatives to execution that, some suggest, could be enacted at a fraction of the cost?

Maybe it's time to re-examine our costly commitment to the death penalty in Ohio before we become the next Texas. The insanity of our flawed system has already exacted a high price from the state.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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