December 01, 2019

Ohio Holds No Executions in 2019, Passes Death Penalty Reforms

On October 30, 2019, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued reprieves to death row prisoners James Galen Hanna and Kareem Jackson, ensuring that the state would not hold any executions in 2019. Earlier in the month, Governor DeWine delayed Cleveland Jackson’s execution date by nearly two years after a state disciplinary complaint revealed that Jackson had been effectively abandoned by counsel. These reprieves capped a long line of clemency actions taken by the governor throughout the year and aligned with efforts by policymakers to increase fairness and transparency in capital cases.

Governor DeWine issued the first reprieve of his term in January 2019, after a federal judge found that Ohio’s three-drug protocol could feel like a “combination of waterboarding and chemical fire.” Although the judge stated that under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, he would have to allow the execution to move forward anyway, Governor DeWine was spurred to action by the findings. Following the federal judge’s ruling, Governor DeWine delayed Warren Keith Henness’s execution from February 13 to September 12, 2019. Just three weeks later, on February 19, 2019, Governor DeWine announced his intention to suspend all executions in the state until problems with the drugs could be resolved. In a press conference regarding his decision, he stated that “Ohio is not going to execute someone under my watch when a federal judge has found it to be cruel and unusual punishment.” Although the federal judge’s decision was later overturned by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Governor DeWine remained steadfast in his resolve that a new execution protocol was needed. In July, the governor suggested that executions might remain on hold indefinitely, given that the state was having difficulty finding drugs without jeopardizing relationships with drug companies.

Governor DeWine continued his string of clemency grants in the fall, issuing a reprieve of execution to Cleveland Jackson on September 30th, three days after Disciplinary Counsel for the Ohio Supreme Court Board of Professional Conduct filed a complaint against Mr. Jackson’s attorneys. The 24-page complaint alleged that Mr. Jackson’s attorneys failed to meet with their client over the course of four years, repeatedly missed deadlines relating to Mr. Jackson’s case, and refused to cooperate with subsequent counsel to protect Mr. Jackson’s legal interests, ultimately failing to provide Mr. Jackson with competent legal representation or perform reasonably diligently in his case. Although Governor DeWine had already indicated that all executions in the state would be on hold until new execution drugs were found, he specifically noted that the troubling allegations raised in the disciplinary complaint served as the basis for his granting a nearly two-year reprieve of execution to Cleveland Jackson. “While a certified disciplinary complaint is only an allegation, this is a serious allegation raising significant questions that need to be resolved in the disciplinary process,” Governor DeWine said. “It is prudent to issue a reprieve in this matter until the disciplinary process is resolved.” Governor John Kasich had previously issued Cleveland Jackson a reprieve, when new attorneys came onto his case after the counsel who were the subject of the disciplinary complaint moved to withdraw. 

Ohio is not going to execute someone under my watch when a federal judge has found it to be cruel and unusual punishment.

Mike DeWine

Governor of Ohio

While its ability to carry out the death penalty remains in limbo, Ohio lawmakers and policy advocates have considered other changes to the capital punishment system. In January 2019, a former member of the state’s parole board and former state senator, Shirley Smith, criticized the board for a lack of transparency in operations and a lack of “humanity” in how it reviews cases. Although this criticism applied to both the board’s handling of capital and non-capital cases, the board has since undertaken reform of how it handles death penalty cases specifically. In the past, the board received much of the relevant information about the prisoner on the day of the hearing. Starting in January 2020, the board will begin receiving more information in advance, including the prisoner’s clemency application, as well as any reports of child abuse, and/or mental health and substance abuse. Governor DeWine has also called for greater transparency in clemency hearings and has appointed three new members to the board.

In addition to changes to its clemency case review procedure, Ohio lawmakers advanced a bill to exempt individuals with serious mental illness from the death penalty. The proposed law defines serious mental illness as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or delusional disorder that significantly impairs the defendant’s capacity to “exercise rational judgment” at the time of the crime. On June 5, 2019, the bill was approved in the House by a vote of 76-17. It has now moved forward to the Senate Judiciary Committee for approval. If Ohio signs the bill into law, it will become the first state in the country to exempt the seriously mentally ill from capital punishment.

Finally, in late December 2019, Ohio lawmakers suggested that repeal of the state’s death penalty might be under consideration. House Speaker Larry Householder told reporters “We may have a law in place that allows for a death penalty that we can’t carry out. And the question is: Are the costs that are associated with that and retrials and all these things, at the end of the day, is it worth that?”