Saturday, September 15, 2001

Condemned now can speak last words

Ohio had restricted it to writing

The Associated Press

        CLEVELAND — Condemned prisoners will be offered a microphone and a reasonable amount of time to make a statement before their execution, under a new state policy.

        The change is part of a settlement between Ohio and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit to force the state to allow prisoners to speak.

        Prison officials instituted a policy in 1997 that permitted prisoners to only write their last words, which would be subject to editing and read only after their executions.

        Cleveland State University law professor Kevin O'Neill, working with the ACLU, filed suit on behalf of two death row inmates. Mr. O'Neill said that since the 1600s, condemned prisoners have had a right to their last words.

        With the suit pending, state prisons director Reginald Wilkinson allowed convicted killer Jay D. Scott to speak his final words before his execution June 14.

        Mr. Wilkinson this week issued a new state policy that allows condemned prisoners to make a statement unedited by prison officials.

        “There will be no restriction on the content of the condemned prisoner's statement,” the policy says, and “no unreasonable restriction on the duration of the prisoner's last statement.”

        Mr. O'Neill said the clause about duration is intended to make sure the prisoner has time to speak but cannot delay the execution indefinitely by talking.

        “We just figured it wasn't that big a deal to fight about it with the ACLU,” Mr. Wilkinson said Thursday.

        “Most people would probably rather hear the inmate himself talk rather than hear the warden read a written statement, so we said we'll allow him to talk for a reasonable time.”

        Another Ohio inmate, John W. Byrd Jr., was scheduled to be electrocuted this week. But the execution was postponed to Oct. 8 to give a federal appeals court more time to study his case.

        The policy prohibiting the final speech was meant to protect family members of murder victims from hearing potentially upsetting statements.

        Ohio introduced its written last-words policy in response to the national outrage that followed the murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in California.

        During his 1996 sentencing, Polly's killer, Richard Allen Davis, tormented the girl's family by making false allegations that Polly's father had molested her.

        Mr. O'Neill sued the state in 1999 as an ACLU volunteer attorney. His clients were death row inmates Frederick J. Treesh, 37, and Melvin D. Bonnell, 43.


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