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Government & Politics

Death Penalty Opponents Make Last-Ditch Effort to Stop Ohio's First Execution in Three Years

photo of Kwame Ajamu
Kwame Ajamu, a death row survivor, served 30 years for a crime he was later exonerated for.

After a three-year break, Ohio is set to execute a death row inmate later this month. Ronald Phillips was convicted of raping and killing his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter in Akron in 1993. He’s scheduled to receive a lethal injection on July 26th now that courts have given the state’s execution method a green light.

Death penalty opponents are making a last minute appeal to Gov. John Kasich to spare Phillips and others.

Anti-capital punishment activists delivered more than 27,000 petitions to Kasich’s office, asking him to commute the death sentence of Phillips and 26 others who are set to be executed in the next three years.

Tom Smith with the Ohio Council of Churches is one of those urging Kasich to act on recommendations of an Ohio Supreme Court task force that studied the capital punishment process. Smith says there are many problems with the death penalty, including racial and economic disparities among those who are sentenced to death row and those who are given lighter sentences.

Smith says there should be no hurry for Ohio to resume executions now.

“We ought not to be known as the Texas of the North when it comes to the death penalty,” he said.

Religious groups are being joined by those who actually lived under death sentences, before they were exonerated.

Kwame Ajamu served 30 years on death row for the murder of Cleveland money order salesman Harold Franks in 1975. A witness who’d been 12 years old at the time eventually recanted the testimony that had been used to convict Ajamu and two others who were also awaiting execution for Franks’ murder.

“Who among us is ok with executing an innocent man? At least the governor should wait. Let’s tell the Governor to wait. Let’s make the system better, accurate. How can you make the system better and kill someone?” Ajamu said.

photo of Melinda Elkins Dawson
Melinda Elkins Dawson requested a prosecutor to not go after the death penalty for the man who was convicted of killing her mother.

Melinda Elkins Dawson agrees. Her husband was sentenced to life in prison for killing her mother, Judith Johnson, in Barberton in 1998. A few years later, after her husband was exonerated, she asked the prosecutor to not go after the death penalty in the case of the man who was later convicted.

“This was 7 ½ years later my mother’s murder. I had dealt with such violence from that murder that I did not feel that I wanted to encounter any more violence, any more killing and deal with it for the next 20 to 30 years. That is not fair to the victims that are left behind,” she said.

And former corrections department employees are urging a halt to executions too, saying it is stressful for them to deal with the death penalty.

But Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, one of the members of the task force that studied the death penalty, doesn’t believe anyone awaiting execution soon is innocent.

“Every one of these cases is reviewed, re-reviewed, and by the time they get scheduled for an execution, it’s twelve, fifteen, eighteen years later," he said. "And dozens of judges have looked at the record in addition to the trial judge and the trial jury and therefore, with post-conviction petitions, DNA requests, and the amount of litigation, anyone who is improperly there, it is detected.”

O’Brien says justice is an issue here because many victim’s families are waiting for the execution of those responsible for the crimes.

photo of Rob O'Brien
Franklin Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, who was a member on a state death penalty task force, sees the benefits in keeping the process.

“Many victim’s families do believe in justice and their view of justice is the same kind of justice – it’s the death penalty. And they view the carrying out of the death penalty years later as actually a frustration of justice. The due process that the defendant’s claim certainly wasn’t given to the victims,” he said.

The three-year halt to executions began after the death of Dennis McGuire in 2014. He choked and gasped through what was the longest execution on record in Ohio.

The state then changed its lethal injection method, proposing a three drug combination that’s never been tried before. That prompted a legal battle in federal court that finally was settled a few weeks ago.

Ronald Phillips still has legal options.

The US Supreme Court could step in – Phillips has joined two other inmates in asking the high court to stop their executions. Kasich has commuted the death sentences for five killers, but 12 have been executed during his time in office. And though he has rejected clemency for Phillips twice, Kasich could still halt his execution.  And death penalty activists are hoping that’s exactly what will happen when Kasich reads the petitions.