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By Marty Schladen and Ohio Capital News

Gov. Mike Dewine’s latest statement on lethal injections could mean the Ohio death house has seen its last execution.

The state hasn’t executed anybody since July 2018, when convicted killer Robert Van Hook wheezed and gasped as he died on a gurney at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility outside Lucasville.

DeWine, who took office the following January, started canceling executions late that month after a federal magistrate compared Ohio’s three-drug protocol to waterboarding and wrote that experts convinced him that one of the drugs “would feel as though fire was being poured” into a prisoner’s veins.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later ruled that Ohio’s lethal injection protocol is constitutional, but by that time publicity surrounding the issue prompted drug makers to step up their pressure on the state to stop using their products in executions. DeWine has cancelled all subsequent executions as drug makers have threatened not to sell the state drugs for any purpose if they kept ending up in the death chamber.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine

On Tuesday, DeWine told the Associated Press that lethal injection as an execution method was no longer an option for Ohio.

The comment was greeted enthusiastically by groups seeking to stop the death penalty.

“We’re living in such a politically divisive climate nationally and in state, but the left, right, and everyone in between can agree on one thing: the death penalty is irreparably flawed,” Hannah Kubbins, executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions, said in an email. “Governor DeWine’s comments were big news, but it’s also common sense that the death penalty doesn’t work to deter crime or keep communities safe — we know this. The death penalty is purely security theater and no longer aligns with Ohio’s values.”

The death penalty has fallen out of favor in some conservative circles as 170 people on death row have been shown to be innocent, it is disproportionately used against minorities, and its application can have more to do with who’s prosecuting the case than the severity of the offense.

Legislative action in Ohio on Wednesday might be a sign of changing conservative attitudes. The GOP-controlled Ohio Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill that would prohibit using the death penalty against people deemed to be mentally ill at the time they kill.

A national group of conservatives opposed to the death penalty praised DeWine for taking lethal injections off the table — at least while he’s in office.

Hannah Cox

“We continue to applaud Governor DeWine’s strong conservative leadership and are excited to see the groundswell of support especially among Republicans — for ending this failed system in the state of Ohio,” Hannah Cox, national manager of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, said in an email.

As lethal injections become more problematic, DeWine has few alternatives — even if he wanted to employ them.

“All indications are that Gov. DeWine is not pushing for alternative methods,” said Robert Dunham, executive director if the Death Penalty Information Center. “I think (DeWine’s Tuesday statement) is a very significant development.”

Some states have alternative methods on their books.

In December 2019, as Tennessee executed a man in the electric chair, witnesses said they saw smoke or steam rising from his head. When another man was electrocuted there in February, witnesses didn’t make any similar reports, but nationally, no other state has used the electric chair since 2013.

Utah still has death by firing squad on its books, but that state hasn’t executed anybody in more than a decade.

Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi allow for executions using nitrogen gas to suffocate a prisoner but Dunham said that, as with death drugs, manufacturers have been unwilling to supply the gas for that use.

“We’re essentially looking at a process in which the market has opted out,” Dunham said of businesses’ unwillingness to participate. “Nobody wants to be seen as participating in killing people.”

Nobody, that is, other than the Trump administration.

As the coronavirus pandemic took hold, no states conducted executions since the summer. Meanwhile, no federal prisoners had been executed since 2003. But on July 14, the first of eight were executed at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. 

The men were killed with an injection of pentobarbital, which Dunham said the government obtained from an unnamed compounding pharmacy.

Another federal prisoner is slated for execution today (Thursday), and another for Friday.

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He’s won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.

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