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Published: Wednesday, 10/24/2001

Prison chief backs ban on electric chair use


COLUMBUS - If the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has his way, electrocution will not be on Ohio's execution menu.

Director Reginald Wilkinson urged the state House Criminal Justice Committee yesterday to approve a bill making lethal injection, a process used twice in the last three years, the sole method of execution in Ohio.

Under law, death-row inmates are asked seven days before their execution dates to choose between the electric chair and the lethal injection gurney. If they make no choice, electrocution becomes the method by default.

No one has died in Ohio's election chair in 38 years, but murderer John W. Byrd, Jr., convicted in the robbery and murder of a Hamilton County man in 1983, was within two days of being the first last month.

He selected electrocution as the means of his death to make a statement about the death penalty. Five days later, he won a federal stay to pursue an appeal that co-conspirator John Brewer held the knife that killed Monte Tewksbury.

“Following the [June] execution of Jay D. Scott, the department became comfortable with the process of carrying out lethal injection,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “Why fool with a process you feel very comfortable with in favor of electrocution? We'd rather not.”

“The possibility that something could go wrong is much greater, based on past practices of other states,” Mr. Wilkinson said.

The committee also has before it a measure sponsored by Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) that would make lethal injection the automatic means of execution if Ohio's 104-year-old but refurbished electric chair were to be declared unconstitutional, as occurred most recently in Georgia.

The bill would allow Ohio to select some other means of execution in the event lethal injection is declared unconstitutional. Mr. Latta offered no suggestions as to what that something might be.

“[The electric chair] hasn't been used here for 38 years and is now only being contemplated because John Byrd wants us, if we are going publicly to kill him, to have to do it in the least civilized manner available to us,” said the Rev. George Williamson, a Baptist pastor from Granville and a death penalty opponent.

Ohio is one of just eight states that still has the electric chair as its sole method of execution or as part of a menu of options.

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