Wednesday, November 24, 1999

Taft wants to unplug electric chair


Governor urges executions by injection

BY MICHAEL HAWTHORNE
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Gov. Bob Taft wants to unplug Ohio's electric chair, though he didn't know the century-old execution machine still is an option for the condemned.

        Mr. Taft, who has the power to commute death sentences to life in prison, told reporters Tuesday that the state should join six others that have made lethal injection the sole method of execution.

        A state law enacted in 1993 allows death row inmates to choose either lethal injection or the electric chair. Kentucky also provides a choice, while Indiana has only lethal injection.

        The governor's comments came in response to questions about a Florida case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that is reviving the debate about whether use of the electric chair is cruel and unusual punishment.

        “It's a very difficult act, obviously, for the state to take under any circumstances,” said Mr. Taft, a death penalty supporter. “But I believe that based on what's happened in Florida and other states, that it amounts to a less humane way of conducting an execution.”

        The Supreme Court halted additional executions in Florida while it considers the history of the electric chair in the state.

        Responding to a pair of cases in which inmates caught fire in the chair as they were being put to death, Florida lawmakers also are considering a special session early next year to debate changes in the state's death penalty law.

        It's unclear if a similar debate will take place in the Ohio General Assembly.

        Senate President Richard Finan, an Evendale Republican who sponsored the 1981 law that reinstated capital punishment in Ohio, couldn't be reached for comment. His spokeswoman, Lisa Peterson, said Mr. Finan favors keeping the law as it stands today.

        Mr. Taft oversaw Ohio's first execution since 1963 earlier this year. Wilford Lee Berry Jr., who killed his boss during a robbery attempt and waived his appeals, chose lethal injection.

        The governor declined to comment Tuesday on whether

        his decision to allow the execution to go forward would have been different had Mr. Berry chosen the electric chair. The method of execution wasn't an issue in the case, he said.

        Mr. Taft acknowledged that he didn't know Ohio allowed death row inmates to choose their method of execution. “My understanding is our policy is to use lethal injection, and I think that's what our policy ought to be,” he said in response to an initial question about the issue.

        Sen. Mark Mallory, a Cincinnati Democrat who opposes the death penalty, said the governor's knowledge of the law was “frightening.”

        “I'm having a difficult time believing he didn't know the electric chair was still part of the execution process, considering the fact that he's the one who can stop that process,” Mr. Mallory said.

        Another death penalty opponent, Jim Tobin of the Catholic Conference of Ohio, welcomed the potential change in state policy.

        “I'm pleased he is beginning to recognize some of the horror and cruelty of our death penalty system,” Mr. Tobin said. “At the same time, the only way you can clean up the system is to eliminate it altogether.”

        Madge Burton, president of Victims United, a crime victims support group in Butler County, echoed the authors of the 1993 law that added lethal injection as an option.

        “I don't care what method they use as long as they enforce the law,” said Ms. Burton, whose two daughters and granddaughter were stabbed to death in November 1984. “I've been waiting 15 years for justice.”

        Ohio's first execution by electrocution took place in 1897. At the time it was considered a humane alternative to hanging.

        Between 1897 and 1963, 312 men and three women died in the state's electric chair, including a man who helped build the device.

       



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