The refusal of pharmaceutical companies to sell the state drugs to use in executions has capital punishment at a virtual standstill in Ohio. A state lawmaker said he has a possible solution.
Ohio’s next execution is set for November, and one in December. However they’re very unlikely to go forward because the state is still working on a new execution method. That’s because the companies that make the drugs used in executions are restricting their use, so they’re becoming increasingly hard to come by.
That gave Rep. Scott Wiggam (R-Wooster) two ideas.
“My thought process is one, I know that fentanyl is a drug that can be used in executions – it was used in Nebraska. My other thought process is that I know that we have a lot of it. We’ve seized enough fentanyl or carfentanil in the state of Ohio to kill half the population," Wiggam said.
So he’s now circulating a request among his fellow lawmakers to sponsor a bill that would allow the state to used confiscated fentanyl to continue conducting executions.
“To me, it’s about finding a way forward overall, but I’m absolutely serious about the idea that we should have a discussion about whether or not we can circumvent the fact that these couple drug companies say they’re not going to sell to the state of Ohio anymore," Wiggam said.
No other state has passed a law that would do this.
Predictably, anti-death penalty advocates aren’t embracing the idea.
“Here we have yet another proposal to keep capital punishment going in Ohio using a particularly bad and tone deaf idea," said Gary Daniels with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which argues the death penalty violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment.
Daniels said this proposal is loaded with problems, "including the fact that this hasn’t been tried before. And I know that a lot of states and governments like to engage in what is essentially human experimentation with their condemned prisoners. But the time is now to talk about ending the death penalty altogether, not how are we going to expand it," Daniels said.
“Anybody that’s in the legal world is saying this is silly, it’s not worth taking it seriously," said Abe Bonowitz with Death Penalty Action.
Bonowitz noted there are strict guidelines for execution drugs, and says it’s doubtful that fentanyl confiscated in drug busts would qualify. But he said that’s not the point.
“There’s lots of ways we could be killing our prisoners. We could pull back out the electric chair. We’ve got plenty of rope, plenty of bullets. But how can we be talking about this question of how we’re killing our prisoners when we haven’t even discussed the recommendations to make sure the system is fair and accurate," Bonowitz said.
A task force convened by the Ohio Supreme Court recommended more than 50 changes to capital punishment policies and procedures in 2014. While some of those recommendations have been proposed in bills, none have become law.
However Wiggam said he’s willing to have a discussion about the efficacy and morality of the death penalty, and that this bill could serve as a conversation starter.
In the meantime, he said something needs to be done about the de facto moratorium on executions.
"What’s happening right now and what I see is the death penalty is begin killed by a thousand cuts and it’s being done through a bureaucratic method. So one day we’re going to turn around and say, the death penalty is no longer able to happen in the state of Ohio," Wiggam said.
Gov. Mike DeWine has delayed five executions since he took office in January – most recently, that of Warren Keith Henness, who was convicted of murdering Richard Myers in Columbus in 1992.
DeWine has said no executions will happen until a federal court approves the state’s new protocol for carrying them out. He said in June that it’s coming soon but his prisons director has said it won’t be rushed.
There are 25 inmates scheduled for execution through 2024.