Opponents of death penalty call for ban in lame duck session

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins - Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Opponents of the death penalty in Ohio called on lawmakers Friday to enact a capital punishment ban during the lame duck legislative session lasting the next five weeks or so.

The Senate legislation, one of several death penalty abolition bills over the years, was introduced in early March just as life turned upside down from the coronavirus pandemic. Though championed by Democrat Nickie Antonio in the GOP-controlled Senate, it has backing from Republicans concerned about the cost of capital punishment and the possibility of executing an innocent person.

“It would be a compassionate, pragmatic and economically prudent step to abolish the death penalty,” Antonio, a Lakewood Democrat, said in a Friday news conference. “It’s a punishment that’s shown to be administered with disparities across economic and racial lines and it’s failed as a deterrent to violent crime.”

Republican supporters of Antonio’s legislation include Sens. Peggy Lehner of Kettering in suburban Dayton and Kristina Roegner of Hudson in northeastern Ohio.

Death penalty opponents also want lawmakers to vote on a Senate bill with even broader support that would ban the execution of the severely mentally ill. Senate President Larry Obhof, a Medina Republican, supports a House version of the mental illness execution ban currently pending in the Senate, said spokesman John Fortney.

Obhof also believes most Ohioans support the death penalty for some cases and so he wouldn’t support abolition, Fortney said. A message was left with GOP House Speaker Bob Cupp seeking comment.

Ohio is under an unofficial death penalty moratorium as the state says it can’t find an adequate supply of drugs for lethal injection. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has delayed multiple inmates’ executions over the past couple of years as a result.

DeWine has also expressed concern that drug companies — which oppose use of their drugs in executions — could pull pharmaceuticals from state hospitals to punish Ohio if it did find a lethal drug supply. A message was left with DeWine’s office Friday.

Former House Speaker Larry Householder, now under federal indictment for his alleged role in a $60 million bribery scheme, questioned earlier this year whether the state should reconsider capital punishment because of the cost and Ohio’s inability to find lethal drugs.

In February, the newly formed Ohio Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty announced its efforts to end the death penalty. Members include former Gov. Bob Taft, former Attorney General Jim Petro and former U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi.

The level of Statehouse conversation about what to do with capital punishment is at its highest level ever, said Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. He said no one should underestimate what’s possible in a lame duck session, referring to the work lawmakers do between an election and the beginning of a new General Assembly.

“What I’ve seen time and time again is bills that people didn’t think had a chance, that hadn’t been too far down the line, sometimes not even been introduced by the time lame duck rolls around, and yet somehow by the end of session they still make it into law,” Daniels said.

Despite Daniels’ optimism, it remains unclear what chances the legislation would really have. For example, lawmakers from both parties agree that a law providing a bailout to two aging nuclear power plants—which is at the heart of the bribery scandal—should be repealed.

But movement on the repeal effort has stalled in recent months, leading to concerns the law will take effect next year and an 85-cent fee will be added to every electricity bill in the state.

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Associated Press