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Published: Wednesday, 1/6/2010

Gov. Strickland denies clemency to Toledoan awaiting execution

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — Vernon L. Smith quietly prayed in his cell, engaged in ceremonial feet washing, and ate a small meal consisting largely of dates and tea Wednesday as he prepared himself for execution at the hands of the state Thursday.

His last hope of avoiding lethal injection for the 1993 robbery murder of a central city merchant was dashed when Gov. Ted Strickland denied his request for clemency. No court appeals were pending that could stop the execution scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Southern Ohio Correctional Institution in Lucasville.

Smith, 37, who legally changed his name to Abdullah Sharif Kaazim Mahdi while sitting on death row, faces the ultimate punishment for killing Toledoan Sohail Darwish in the Woodstock Carryout he owned during a robbery.

Never denying that Mahdi fired the gun that killed Mr. Darwish, his attorneys urged the governor to commute his sentence to life in prison without parole. That sentencing option did not exist in Ohio law when Mahdi was tried.

Mr. Strickland said he and his staff thoroughly reviewed the record of the case, Mahdi's clemency petition, and letters his office had received on the case. Ultimately, he agreed with the 5-2 recommendation of the Ohio Parole Board that he show Madhi no mercy.

Mahdi is scheduled to become the 34th person executed since Ohio resumed carrying out the death penalty in 1999. He would be just the second in the nation put to death via a one-drug protocol, a massive overdose of the powerful anesthetic thiopental sodium.

In the event the execution team fails to find a useable vein as occurred in a few highly publicized Ohio cases, the yet-to-be-used backup plan would involve injecting two drugs directly into muscle—the fast-acting sedative midazolam and the powerful painkiller hydromorphine.

Mahdi was transported Wednesday morning roughly 260 miles from death row at the Ohio State Penitentiary at Youngstown to Lucasville. After fasting throughout the day, he asked for a “special meal'' of whole and chopped dates as well as hot tea with lemon and honey.

He also asked for a Miswak, a wooden stick used to clean teeth, as well as olive oil, which he planned to use to groom his beard. Julie Walburn, spokesman for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said neither has particular religious significance but are commonly used by those of the Muslim faith.

Mahdi has the option of eating the same breakfast as all other inmates Thursday morning, but he indicated that he expected to simply eat more of the dates as he resumes his fast.

“During the time that he has been here, he has spent his time praying, reading, watching television,'' said Ms. Walburn. He talked to his wife and one of his state attorneys on the telephone with both conversations lasting about 30 minutes. He was expected to meet with two spiritual advisors.

On May 26, 1993, Mahdi, brandishing a gun, walked into the Woodstock Carryout with Herbert Bryson while Bryson's cousin, Lamont Layson, waited in the car. During the robbery, Smith shot Mr. Darwish — a 28-year-old Palestinian immigrant, husband, and father of one daughter with a second on the way.

The bullet struck Mr. Darwish in the upper chest near the shoulder, severing an artery and leaving him to bleed to death.

Mr. Darwish's widow, Charlotte, and their two daughters, Dolly and Mona, are expected to witness the execution. Dolly, now 17, was just shy of her first birthday when her father was killed. At age 16, Mona, born three months after her father died, is expected to become the youngest person to witness an Ohio execution since at least 1999.

The only witness scheduled for Mahdi is his Islamic imam, Atef Hamed, one of those Mahdi was expected to meet with Wednesday night..

Chantell Beacham, Mahdi's cousin, was one of several family members who wrote to Mr. Strickland urging him to commute his sentence.

“Vernon is not a bad person,'' she wrote. “Growing up without the benefit of a male figure in his home, unfortunately at an early age Vernon followed the wrong crowd. Each of us at some time in our lives has done things that we have regretted. I know that Vernon regrets the day he committed the act that has put him where he is now.''

Mahdi's attorneys had argued that he is not among the worst of the worst for which capital punishment is intended. They contended he hadn't intended to kill Mr. Darwish and instead believed he'd delivered a non-fatal wound to his arm.

As evidence of his lack of intent, they pointed to the fact that Mahdi and Bryson fled the store without killing an eyewitness, Osand (Senate) Tahboub, who was behind the counter with his friend at the time of the robbery. Mr. Tahboub later returned from his native Lebanon to testify against Mahdi.

Bryson is serving a 10- to 25-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter. Layson has been paroled from his seven-to-25-year sentence for aggravated robbery. Both testified against Mahdi as part of plea agreements.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com, or 614-221-0496.



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