Ohio Considers Junking Electric Chair
By Bill Cohen, Special to Stateline
Ironically, a convicted murderer who doesn't want to be executed is sparking the change, by demanding that he be killed in Ohio's electric chair.
Since 1993, Ohio law has given condemned inmates the choice of electrocution or lethal injection. John W. Byrd, Jr. wants to strike a blow against capitol punishment in general by forcing executioners to use the chair to execute him.
"It's not like taking your old family dog to the vet and putting him down quietly," says Jane Perry, Byrd's public defender attorney. " He's willing to take that suffering in order to hopefully make the point that executions should not be sanitized. (Either way) it is the killing of another human being."
Byrd's choosing of electrocution has prompted Ohio Corrections Director Reggie Wilkinson to ask state legislators to quickly pass a new law, pulling the plug on the electric chair. He doesn't want to have to oversee an electrocution that might have problems like ones in Florida, where flames shot out of one condemned inmate's hooded head as he was being executed and leaking blood stained another inmate's shirt as he was being put to death.
"Some pretty nasty stuff has happened around the country, and that's not something I want to put our staff through," says Wilkinson. "It's stressful on me (too)."
While Ohio considers scrapping its electric chair after 315 electrocutions, seven other states have already done it: Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Jersey, South Dakota, Louisiana, and Indiana. Those states, and several others, now use lethal injections exclusively.
Debates over abolishing capitol punishment in general are often clearly defined. Not so with debates over changing the method of capitol punishment. The Ohio debate includes some "strange political bedfellows."
State Senator Lou Blessing, a death penalty supporter, doesn't want to give death row inmates a chance to use the electric chair as a way to argue against all capitol punishment, so he backs the plan to unplug the chair. He wants to make sure executions continue to be palatable to the public.
"Perhaps we should get rid of the electric chair. At least then, we could retain the death penalty," he reasons.
But a fellow Republican Senator and death penalty backer, Scott Oelslager, wants to keep the chair to show Ohio has a law and order attitude."That chair stands as a symbol that Ohio will not tolerate certain types of crimes," he says.
Non-legislator Michael Manley also wants to keep the electric chair, but for a totally opposite reason. Manley is an activist against the death penalty in general, and, like inmate Byrd, he believes moving toward only lethal injections is a scheme to sugarcoat executions. "I'm afraid it is an effort to sanitize it, making it seem as if it's painless. It is still killing," Manley says.
If Ohio legislators eventually vote on the proposed moratorium on electrocutions, it will be put opponents of capitol punishment in a bind."It would probably be a very difficult vote for me," says Senator Mark Mallory. "The lethal injection method is less cruel and inhumane, but putting someone to death (in any way) is cruel and unusual punishment."
The plan to unplug Ohio's electric chair now has backing from key players, including death penalty backers such as Governor Bob Taft and Attorney General Betty Montgomery.
But state legislators will have to act quickly if they want to block John Byrd from choosing death by electric chair.
Byrd is scheduled to be executed on September 12. Ohio legislators are now on summer vacation, and they are not scheduled to return to work until September 11.