U.S. Death Penalty: Botched Executions And Suicide Attempts

Billy Slagle died in a holding cell, like the one in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility featured here, three days before the state of Ohio was to execute him (Photo Credit: Mike Simons/Getty Images).

Billy Slagle died in a holding cell, like the one in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility featured here, three days before the state of Ohio was to execute him (Photo Credit: Mike Simons/Getty Images).

Back in 2010, the cruelty – and absurdity – of the death penalty was on full display when Brandon Rhode tried to commit suicide just days before he was to be executed by the state of Georgia. The state rushed him to the hospital and saved his life – only to execute him a week later.

The suicide attempt reportedly left Rhode brain damaged. He was shackled to a restraint chair for the next 7 days, and then the execution proceeded. The lethal injection may have been botched, as Rhode’s eyes remained open the entire time.

This weekend, Billy Slagle was found hanged in his cell on Ohio’s death row. Slagle died three days before the state of Ohio was to execute him. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has promised a “complete investigation.”

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Our Death Penalty: Inciting Murder And Killing Arbitrarily

Rally to abolish the death penaltyWhen Robert Gleason Jr. was put to death in Virginia on January 16 (he chose the electric chair) he became the 140th so-called “volunteer” for execution since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976.  In fact, over 10% of US executions have been “voluntary,” usually meaning that the prisoner has given up his appeals.

But in Gleason’s case it was more than that. He specifically killed to get the death penalty. He strangled his cellmate and vowed to keep on killing unless he was executed.  And this is not the first time someone has committed murder in order to get the state to kill him.  In Ohio in 2009, Christopher Newton was put to death for killing his cellmate. He had refused to cooperate with investigators unless they sought the death penalty.

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Senseless Violence from Beirut to Ohio

Witness room facing the execution chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville,Ohio

Ohio execution chamber, 2009 CAROLINE GROUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

The life of Abdul Hamin Awkal has been punctuated by violence. And on June 6, unless the Governor of Ohio steps in, his life will end in the violence of execution.

Born in Beirut in 1959, he grew up in a family with an abusive father and a history of mental illness. In 1975, when he was a teenager, the Lebanese civil war broke out, unleashing waves of violence. There followed 8 years of witnessing dismembered bodies, bombings and kidnappings. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Ohio's Death Penalty Needs A Time-Out

Tyrone Noling

Tyrone Noling

Following the news of the nation’s 140th death row exoneration, which was also Ohio’s 6th, comes a story in The Atlantic about another disturbing case in the Buckeye State.  Tyrone Noling remains sentenced to die despite:

  • No physical evidence against him
  • Recanting witnesses who may have been coerced
  • An alternative suspect who seems to never have been thoroughly investigated
  • The state refusing to support a DNA test that might shed light on the accuracy of the conviction.

You know, the usual stuff.

Ohio has 13 executions scheduled, but wrongful death sentences, botched executions like that of Romell Broom which have led the courts to harshly admonish Ohio officials, expressions of concern from a state Supreme Court judge and a former Attorney General (authors of Ohio’s death penalty law), and from a warden who oversaw 33 executions, all suggest that the state could use a time-out.

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Ohio Produces Nation's 140th Death Row Exoneration

Joe D’Ambrosio is free.  He spent more than 20 years on death row, and almost two more years waiting while the state of Ohio – whose prosecutors had withheld key evidence from his defense – tried to go after him again.  Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court closed the book on his case.  Joe D’Ambrosio is the 140th person exonerated from U.S. death rows since 1973, and the 6th from Ohio.

Is this exoneration an example of the system working?  Hardly.  Mr. D’Ambrosio’s exoneration came about because of a chance meeting with a Catholic priest who was visiting another inmate.  The priest, Rev. Neil Kookoothe, happened to have legal training and decided to look into the case himself.  As Kevin Werner, executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions, put it: “Coincidence is not the standard we should be comfortable with when our justice system is seeking to execute people.”

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Destined for Disaster?

When, last September, Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich stopped the execution of Joseph Murphy and granted him clemency, he reasoned that a childhood of “severe and sustained verbal, physical and sexual abuse from those who should have loved him” had left Murphy “destined for disaster.”

In that statement, Governor Kasich acknowledged our society’s cycle (really, progression) of violence – from child abuse to murder to execution – and acted to stop it.  (At least for this one case – Ohio has 14 more executions scheduled between now and January 2014.)

Delaware’s Board of Pardons and Governor face a similar choice in the case of Robert Gattis, who is slated to be put to death on January 20.  Gattis suffered through a childhood experts have described as “catastrophic to his development.”  Beginning as a small child, he was raped and molested and otherwise physically abused, by multiple abusers, including close family members.  This seriously impaired his ability to function as an adult.

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2011: Five Good Signs For Death Penalty Abolition in the US

stop the execution death penalty protesters

© Scott Langley

Given the dramatic events of the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy Wall Street”, Time Magazine has dubbed “The Protester” as its Person of the Year for 2011. Seems fitting enough, but someday we may also look back on this past year as a turning point in the history of death penalty abolition in the U.S.

On September 21, the crowds amassed around the world to protest the killing of Troy Davis were the most visible sign that opponents of capital punishment were turning up the volume.  But that wasn’t the only sign. Throughout the year more and more voices from across the U.S. spoke out against the death penalty.

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Death Penalty Abolition: Five States That Could Be Next

witness viewing room death penalty

Witness viewing room © Scott Langley

Three states have abolished the death penalty legislatively in recent years: New Jersey in 2007, New Mexico in 2009, and Illinois in 2011.  Inevitably, more states will follow; but can a state or states abolish the death penalty in an even-numbered (read: election) year?  We will find out in 2012.

As Politico reported on Friday, states that are poised to end their experiment with capital punishment next year include Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, and Ohio, as well as California (through a ballot initiative).  This is quite a diverse collection of states, ranging from small to large and from conservative to liberal, which goes to show how mainstream an issue death penalty abolition has become.

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Ohio Should Just Stop Killing People

Back in 2010, the pharmaceutical giant Hospira Inc. asked Ohio to not use its drug, the anesthetic sodium thiopental, in executions.  Ohio, like other states, refused, so Hospira stopped making the drug.

Then Ohio, like other states, switched to a new anesthetic called pentobarbital.  Its manufacturer, Lundbeck, also asked Ohio to not use it in executions.   Again, Ohio, like other states, refused.   Lundbeck is now actively taking steps to prevent future batches of this drug from getting into the hands of executioners.  So, with 12 executions scheduled between now and May 2013, Ohio is facing yet another execution drug shortage.

What now?  Ohio is considering switching drugs again.  Its choices include a drug that helped kill Michael Jackson (propofol), or a combination of drugs that could cause convulsions or vomiting (midazolam and hydromorphone).  (No word on whether Ohio might consider even cheaper alternatives.)

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Georgia Schedules Execution

Georgia has set June 23 as the date for Roy Blankenship’s execution.   Doubts about his guilt persist.  In February, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles did the responsible thing and granted a stay to allow for DNA testing that might exonerate Blankenship or implicate an alternative suspect.

Unfortunately, the available crime scene samples were too small and degraded and the testing was inconclusive.  There is still some evidence that points to another suspect; without quality physical evidence that can be conclusively tested, questions about Roy Blankenship’s guilt will probably never be resolved.

Today, Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich granted clemency to Shawn Hawkins, based on doubts that Hawkins committed the crime for which he was sentenced to die.  While pondering his decision, Kasich told the media that: “We are not going to go forward with an execution where we are not certain.”  This was the right, and common-sense, course of action, as it was right for the Georgia Board to grant Roy Blankenship a stay for DNA tests.  Given the continuing doubts about Blankenship’s guilt, the right course of action now would be to grant clemency and commute his sentence permanently.