3 Ohio executions on hold
Strickland doesn't want to make hasty decisions
By Reginald Fields, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Jan. 20, 2007
Columbus -- Pressured to make a quick and ill-prepared life-or-death decision on an inmate set to be executed in three days, Gov. Ted Strickland instead put Ohio's death penalty on hold.
His decision, issued Friday but hinted at days ago, means the three executions scheduled for this month will be pushed back at least a few months.
The executions include one Tuesday and another on Feb. 13 for Lorain County wife-killer James Filiaggi.
The governor offered the reprieves to give himself more time to consider clemency requests. Kenneth Biros, scheduled for execution on Tuesday, has a new execution date of March 20. Filiaggi's was moved to April 24. And Christopher Newton's date changed from Feb. 27 to May 24.
Strickland took office 12 days ago. He said he just has not had enough time to consider Biros' request for his death sentence to be commuted to life in prison. The governor figures he will need more time for Filiaggi and Newton, too.
Compounding the issue for Strickland -- aside from the fact that he is struggling morally with the death penalty -- is a pending lawsuit in which seven death-row inmates are arguing the lethal injection process violates their rights against cruel and unusual punishment.
"I find myself confronted with two separate sets of circumstances in a compressed time period," Strickland said earlier this week. "I certainly do not feel very comfortable at this point."
Strickland said he considered a range of options, from allowing the executions to proceed as planned to calling for a moratorium.
The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a Sacramento, Calif.-based group that supports capital punishment, said that as long as the governor doesn't call for more delays, there appears to be no harm in the decision.
"A new governor giving himself more time to consider clemency is fine, as long as it is not for an exceedingly long time," said Kent Scheidegger, the foundation's legal director. "But I hope this is not a prelude to longer delays."
Biros' attorney, Tim Sweeney of Cleveland, said all his client wanted was a fair evaluation.
"He is certainly appreciative of the governor's decision and hopes that after he freely reviews the case, he will offer clemency," Sweeney said.
The Ohio Public Defender's Office also applauded the decision.
"This has the effect of guaranteeing that no one in Ohio will face a last- minute execution in Ohio," said Greg Meyers, of the public defender's office. "It teaches us that we have a governor who is taking very seriously the question of clemency."
Meyers is arguing the lethal injection case against the state.
Attorney General Marc Dann, who is fighting to uphold the death penalty, issued a statement saying he respected the governor's decision and that it will not affect the state's legal strategy.
Dann, coincidentally, on Thursday said he still wants a review of the death penalty to test his concerns that the penalty is not applied proportionally across racial, socio-economic and age boundaries. He must juxtapose that view with his duty to seek timely executions.
"My job is to enforce the law," he said. "But the bigger picture is how do we make sure the law holds up evenly for everybody."
Similar lethal-injection lawsuits are pending in about a dozen other states, including four where judges have halted all executions: Missouri, California, Maryland and South Dakota.
A New Jersey special commission recommended that the state's legislature and governor abolish the death penalty. And last month, Florida's governor suspended executions, at least until March, when he is to receive a lethal-injection study he ordered after a botched execution there.
Ohio's lethal-injection process was questioned after last May's execution of Joseph Clark when the death squad could not find a vein in his arm to feed the drugs through. Clark cried out, "This isn't working." The state revised its procedures after that incident.
In Ohio, conflicting decisions between the district and appeals courts have meant some inmates involved in the lethal-injection lawsuit, like Lake County's Jeffrey Lundgren, have died before getting their day in court. Others, meanwhile, have been allowed to live.
Strickland doesn't want such blood on his hands and signaled that he would ideally like to wait until the court action is resolved before allowing any more executions.
"I think it would be unfortunate for someone to be executed one day and then the courts decide another day that the method of execution was unconstitutional," he said this week.
Biros is a plaintiff in the lethal-injection lawsuit - known as the Cooey case, named after death-row inmate Richard Cooey, who originally brought the suit.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati is considering whether that suit was legally filed and can proceed forward. If it does, arguments could take place this spring.
Before Strickland's directive, a district court judge had stopped Biros' execution, and an appeals court is still considering an appeal filed last week by Attorney General Dann. Strickland had hoped the appeals court would make a ruling so that he might not have to.
If the appeals court had upheld the stay, Strickland could have remained silent at least for a few more weeks until Filiaggi was due up. If it had reversed the lower court, the governor would have been forced to make a decision on Biros by Tuesday.
Filiaggi has not requested to join the lethal-injection lawsuit and, barring clemency, could become the first inmate executed under Strickland.