Larry Householder says he has become “less and less supportive” of the death penalty. On Tuesday, the House speaker told reporters that his change in thinking stems partly from the cost, noting that “it’s extremely expensive to put somebody to death in lieu of … life in prison.” He added that it has “become more and more difficult to do an execution,” something Ohio has encountered in recent months. Gov. Mike DeWine twice has postponed the lethal injection for Warren Henness, now scheduled for May 2020.
The speaker’s comments deserve close attention, and not just from colleagues at the Statehouse. Householder noted he’s “probably like most Ohioans,” once “extremely supportive” and now with doubts about the value. That impression seems at work with juries in Summit County, a spate of death penalty cases not too long ago resulting in sentences of life in prison, a severe punishment by any measure.
With the speaker’s influential contribution, here is an opportunity for the state to weigh whether to keep capital punishment.
The governor first put the process on hold when a federal magistrate judge found the state’s method of lethal injection, a combination of three drugs, unconstitutional, essentially, the prisoner at risk of experiencing a sensation of drowning. The magistrate judge compared the circumstances to “waterboarding,” or torture, a violation of the ban on cruel and unusual punishments. Recall that state lawmakers opted for lethal injection nearly three decades ago as a more humane alternative to the electric chair.
In the wake of the court ruling, the governor declared: “Ohio is not going to execute someone under my watch when a federal judge has found it to be cruel and unusual punishment.”
Thus, the state set out to find an appropriate protocol of drugs. That has proved difficult, as it has for other states. Drug companies resist seeing their products used for capital punishment. So the state has encountered barriers to securing the right combination, as Speaker Householder indicated.
The governor reported drugmakers have warned that if Ohio uses one of their drugs in an execution, they will halt all sales of drugs to the state. As the governor explained, that would put in peril the health of “hundreds of thousands” Ohioans who rely daily on the medication.
Might lawmakers revive the electric chair? Or adopt lethal gas? One lawmaker has proposed using illegal fentanyl seized by law enforcement officers in drug busts. The synthetic opioid already has played a role in the deaths of thousands of Ohioans. Fortunately, the governor quickly rejected the idea, saying: “We do not believe it would pass constitutional muster. We do not believe it would be upheld by a court, so there’s really no reason to come forward with that proposal.” The complications start with the variations of the drug sold on the street.
Better for lawmakers to take up whether to continue with the death penalty. Studies consistently show the added expense, from the conduct of trials to the appeals process and aspects of incarceration. Might Ohio put the savings to more effective use, considering the death penalty does little to deter, reflects a racial bias and often lands arbitrarily?
The changes in capital punishment often have been linked by the courts and scholars to “evolving standards,” or the public perception of how the death penalty should be conducted in its name. That is what delivered lethal injection. It led the Ohio Supreme Court to convene a task force to seek ways to improve the process here. Now drug companies have forced the question and given the House speaker reason to wonder aloud whether the death penalty is worth it.