Thursday, July 19, 2001

Prison chief wants electric chair retired

By John McCarthy
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — The state should execute condemned inmates by lethal injection only and retire the electric chair because malfunctions could prove too stressful for prison staffers, the state prison director said Wednesday.

        The idea from Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation, comes less than two months before the scheduled execution of an inmate who has said he would prefer the electric chair over lethal injection. Ohio law lets condemned inmates choose the method.

        Ohio's 105-year-old electric chair hasn't been used since 1963. Mr. Wilkinson said the chair has been rewired and is expected to operate properly, but there is less potential for problems with lethal injections.

        “I want to get rid of electrocution as an option,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “It's been my notion that we don't need to use the electric chair. ... We've done two lethal injections now and the process works well.”

        Last month, the state executed Jay Scott for the 1983 murder of a Cleveland delicatessen owner. In 1999, the state executed Wilford Berry, known as “The Volunteer” because he didn't pursue his appeals in the murder of his boss.

        John Byrd Jr., convicted in the 1983 slaying of a suburban Cincinnati convenience store clerk, is scheduled to be put to death on Sept. 12. He was hours away from execution in 1994 when a federal court halted it because he had not been allowed his federal appeals. Mr. Byrd had chosen electrocution for that scheduled execution.

        Mr. Byrd, who maintains he is innocent, would still choose electrocution because he wants to put state officials “to the ultimate test,” said Ohio Public Defender David Bodiker, whose office represents Mr. Byrd.

        “He wants them to have to do it in the most difficult manner. He doesn't want to make it easy for them,” Mr. Bodiker said.

        Mr. Wilkinson said he was concerned about the additional toll on prison employees.

        “The probability of something going wrong and inducing more stress on staff — this one (lethal injection) is tough enough — is more likely with electrocutions. I don't think our staff needs to go through that,” Mr. Wilkinson said.

        Senate President Richard Finan, who helped write the 1981 law that restored the death penalty in Ohio, said he would support a moratorium on electrocutions while prison officials study the issue.

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