Death-Penalty Opponents Focus on the Execution Next Week of Akron's Ronald Phillips

Jul 19, 2017

Kwame Ajamu was exonerated after a child, who was an eyewitness, recanted.
Credit DAN KONIK / OHIO PUBLIC RADIO

Ohio is preparing to carry out its first execution in three years later this month. Ronald Phillips of Akron was convicted of raping and killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter in 1993 and is scheduled to receive a lethal injection next Wednesday (July 26th). Statehouse correspondent Jo Ingles reports that 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.

The north’s Texas
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.”

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

'Who among us is OK with executing an innocent man?'

Kwame Ajamu served 30 years on death row for the murder of Cleveland money-order salesman Harold Franks in 1975. A witness who was 12- years-old at the time eventually recanted the testimony 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?”

Forgiveness from a victim
Melinda Elkins Dawson agrees. Her then-husband, Clarence Elkins, 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.

Melinda Elkins Dawson says she wanted no more violence to come from her mother's murder.
Credit JO INGLES / OHIO PUBLIC RADIO

"This was 7½ years after 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.”

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

'I had dealt with such violence from that murder that I did not feel that I wanted to encounter any more violence.'

No question of innocence?
But Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, a member of the task force that studied the death penalty, doesn’t believe anyone awaiting execution soon is innocent.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien says victims' families have waited too long.
Credit DAN KONIK / OHIO PUBLIC RADIO

“Every one of these cases is reviewed, re-reviewed, and by the time they get scheduled for an execution, it’s 12, 15, 18 years later. 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.”

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

“Many victim’s families do believe in justice and their view of justice is 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.”

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.

'Many victims' families do believe in justice and their view of justice is ... the death penalty.'

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.

An appeal to the courts and the governor

Opponents of the death penalty delivered 27,000 petitions.
Credit JO INGLES / OHIO PUBLIC RADIO

Ronald Phillips still has legal options. The U.S. 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. Death penalty activists are hoping that’s exactly what will happen when Kasich reads the petitions.