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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Ohio (aka Texas north) has just set 7 new execution dates – meaning there is now an execution in the state scheduled each and every month between February and October. Ohio officials are claiming that the change to a new execution drug, announced just two weeks ago, had nothing to do with this sudden splurge in execution dates.
Also having nothing to do with it are the beliefs of the Ohio Supreme Court judge who was an architect of Ohio’s death penalty law, the former director of Ohio’s prisons who personally witnessed 33 executions, and Ohio’s Catholic bishops, all of whom have called for Ohio to stop executions and get rid of the death penalty.
The wishes of the company that makes the drug Ohio intends to use for all these new executions are also apparently irrelevant. Ohio is turning to pentobarbital because sodium thiopental is no longer available from an FDA approved manufacturer, but Denmark-based Lundbeck, the only manufacturer of an injectable form of pentobarbital, has demanded that its product NOT be used for the killing of prisoners, stating bluntly:
“Lundbeck is dedicated to saving people’s lives. Use of our products to end lives contradicts everything we’re in business to do.”
The setting of 7 new death dates indicates that, so far, nothing has been able to halt the bureaucratic and/or political momentum driving prisoners into Ohio’s execution chamber.
But the chorus of voices opposing executions in Ohio is growing.
(c) Scott Langley
As the pace of executions has accelerated in Ohio (it was second only to Texas is executions last year), the Buckeye State has been at the center of death penalty debates in the U.S. Since the miserably failed execution of Romell Broom (in which he was subjected to two hours of unsuccessful attempts to find a vein suitable for injecting the lethal drugs) Ohio has twice switched execution protocols – first, moving to a one drug method (a massive dose of the anesthetic sodium thiopental), and now, as that drug’s manufacturer has taken it off the market, a one drug dose of a different anesthetic, pentobarbital, which is commonly used to put down animals.
The first execution in Ohio to incorporate this new drug is scheduled for March 10.
Meanwhile, those who know Ohio’s death penalty the best have begun to assert that Ohio should just abolish the death penalty. Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who as a state Senator was largely responsible for enacting Ohio’s death penalty law, has called for an end to capital punishment in his state. And Terry Collins, a former warden who personally witnessed 33 executions, has also urged Ohioans to give up the death penalty.
On the question of capital punishment, Ohio is moving simultaneously in two different directions. Will Ohio ignore the voices of those most experienced with the death penalty and continue to execute prisoners at a record pace? Or will the people of Ohio heed those voices and move to shut down Ohio’s incredibly dysfunctional death penalty once and for all?
Justice Paul E. Pfeifer is a Republican who, as a state Senator, was heavily involved in passing the capital punishment bill that became Ohio’s death penalty law in 1981. He is currently a Justice on Ohio’s Supreme Court and has been since 1993. He was re-elected again last November. Yesterday, after he was sworn in to begin his fourth term, he called for Ohio to end its association with the death penalty.
Justice Pfeifer has watched as Ohio has become the second most prolific executioner in America (behind Texas), and he has expressed increasing concern that prosecutors have resorted to the death penalty too much. Last May, he called for a review of all death sentences in Ohio, saying that “few people in Ohio that are proud of the fact we are executing people at the same pace as Texas.”
Yesterday, he said of Ohio’s death penalty:
“I have concluded that it is exceedingly difficult for this statute to be administered in a fair and just way …These are important matters that need all of our thoughtful attention — need the attention of the legislature to consider seriously whether we’re well-served by this statute any longer …The time has come for us to make that change.”
Judge Pfiefer’s speech begins, somewhat goofily, at 50:40 of the swearing-in ceremony video below. He begins speaking about the death penalty at 1:09:28.