The state of Ohio executed its first death row inmate in more than three years today (Wednesday) after a questionable lethal injection in 2014 sparked a long legal battle over how the state carries out the death penalty. This execution seemed to have a very different result.
Witnesses described 43-year-old Ronald Phillips as emotional but calm as the state administered a lethal injection, killing the man who raped and murdered 3-year-old Sheila Marie Evans in 1993.
Following the execution, Ryan Lang, a reporter with WAKR in Akron, read aloud Phillips’ final statement.
“To the Evans family, I’m sorry you had to live so long with my evil actions. All those years I prayed you’d forgive me and find it in your heart to forgive and have mercy on me,” Lang read Phillips' statement.
But the notion that Phillips spent years seeking forgiveness from Sheila’s family came as a surprise to her half-sister, Renee Mundell.
“This is the first time in 24 years that I’ve seen any remorse in this man. When he went through trial there was no remorse whatsoever. I’ve seen him shed one tear when they gave him his sentence and that was it there was nothing until today.”
Mundell and Sheila’s aunt, Donna Hudson, expressed relief that this execution has finally brought their family closure to a horrific crime.
The journey to Phillips’ execution was long and full of twists. The date was pushed back many times due to the state’s last lethal injection in 2014. That was when Dennis McGuire reportedly squirmed, struggled for air and finally succumbed to the injection nearly 30 minutes later.
Ohio Prison’s Director Gary Mohr reiterated that he believed McGuire’s procedure was humane.
“I witnessed it. I saw that. I believe, I have confidence that we’re going to continue to do this in a dignified, peaceful, humane way and I’m committed to do that,” Mohr said.
However, Alan Johnson, a veteran reporter on executions for The Columbus Dispatch, disputed Mohr’s account.
“I respectfully disagree. I think that was very different, very unusual. I don’t know what the inmate was feeling but it didn’t look, it didn’t look the way he described it I thought it was very much more traumatic,” Johnson recounted.
So the state announced it would change its lethal injection method. That sparked a long court battle over which drugs should be used when putting someone to death. Judges finally ruled that Ohio’s new three-drug mixture would be sufficient, finally allowing for Phillips’ execution, which Johnson was also present for.
“This is so, so much different than Dennis McGuire three and a half years ago. Very calm, the inmate was very emotional but there were no signs that I could see of gasping, choking, struggling.”
There’s still an argument to be made that Phillips did in fact experience pain. According to Allen Bohnert, assistant federal public defender, the state administered the drug that paralyzes the inmate too soon.
“By injecting the paralytic so extremely quickly it shuts the door on any of that and prematurely covers up whatever else could be happening and we submit would be happening based on the evidence from all these other executions.”
Bohnert cites lethal injections carried out in Arkansas and Oklahoma as examples.
The delay for Phillips means the dates of many executions have been shifted forward. There are 26 other inmates set to die in the next three years. Mundell, Sheila’s sister, hopes this latest reinstatement of capital punishment means more families will find justice for their loved ones.
“I’m hoping that we have opened the door for them. Families need closure.”
But Hudson, Sheila’s aunt, admits that this will be a crime that they’ll have to live with for the rest of their lives.
“But she did get closure and justice has finally after 24 years she can rest in peace Sheila Marie rest in peace.”