(WKBN) – It has been over 35 years since Danny Lee Hill was sentenced to death for the murder of 12-year-old Raymond Fife. While his stay on Death Row has been lengthy, it’s not unusual for prisoners in Ohio.
Ohio has 130 prisoners on Death Row, many of which have been there for decades. The last execution in the state took place on July 18, 2018, when Robert Van Hook was executed 33 years after stabbing a man to death in a Cincinnati apartment.
The hold-up on Hill’s execution has drawn the ire of Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, who recently asked the legislature to consider other methods such as electrocution or a firing squad. He added that Fife’s mother, who is in her 80s, should see justice served in her lifetime. WKBN spoke to her in 2019, and she talked about the lack of closure in the case.
Recently, states like South Carolina began looking into these other options as lethal injection drugs are becoming harder to find.
Are these methods likely in Ohio, though?
Dan Tierney, press secretary for Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s office, said there is more to it than just making the decision to switch.
“Methods of execution are set in statute. Current statutes designate only lethal injection as a permissible method. Any change in statute would be initiated by the Ohio General Assembly,” he said in a statement to WKBN.
There is currently no pending legislation to make changes to the state’s execution method, though there is legislation to completely abolish it. Those bills were introduced in the House and Senate and were sent to committees for review.
State Senator Nickie Antonio, D-23rd District, said looking for other forms of execution is not the answer.
“I do not believe the solution for the inability to carry out executions by lethal injection is to search for other ways to take a life. To me, the moratorium on the death penalty in Ohio should be extended indefinitely. Since 2011, I have introduced legislation to end the death penalty, once and for all – most recently as Senate Bill 103, a bipartisan bill introduced this General Assembly to end Ohio’s use of the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole.”
WKBN First News reached out to several Valley lawmakers about their thoughts on what, if any, action can be expected from the General Assembly. None that we reached out to returned our request, other than Sen. Antonio.
It’s not surprising that lawmakers may be resistant to talking about the hot-button issue.
The Office of Ohio Public Defenders is in support of SB 103 and its abolition of the death penalty in the state.
Writing for the Ohio Bar Association (OBA) in 2021, State Public Defender Timothy Young said that “the death penalty is the most inefficient government program in existence. If any other law was this expensive, this flawed and this ineffective at delivering results, there is no doubt the General Assembly would rescind that law.”
Saleh Awadallah, who works in the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office as the Major Trial Unit Supervisor, wrote in an OBA report that the Ohio legislature has done virtually nothing to advance enabling statutes designed to effectuate victims’ rights under the Ohio Constitution (Marsy’s Law). He asks “will they fix it, or will they further cripple it?”
Awadallah wrote that the courts often move slowly on capital cases after conviction because executions are likely decades away.
So what’s the hold-up with Ohio’s executions?
Lethal injection is still the most common method of execution, but more recently, there have been some issues with the process.
Part of the delay in Ohio is that pharmaceutical companies have specified that their drugs can’t be used for lethal injection. If the state were to ignore that directive, these companies have stated they will no longer provide their pharmaceutical drugs to any state entity, including state hospitals.
Some of those companies contend that their drugs weren’t designed for this purpose, and they don’t want them connected to killing people.
There isn’t one specific drug created for executions, rather, states are using a drug cocktail designed to produce certain effects. Ohio had been using midazolam as part of its three-drug protocol and used it during its last execution in the state, on Robert Van Hook.
In a court filing, Dr. Mark Edgar, who performed Van Hook’s autopsy; and a witness in the case seeking to do away with the death penalty said the drug causes pulmonary edema, creating “air hunger.” Edgar said that the lungs fill up with fluid instead of air. In the court filing, medical witnesses describe pulmonary edema as physically and emotionally painful, stressful and panic-inducing.
Edgar had said that phenobarbital, also a lethal injection drug, does the same thing.
The federal judge agreed with Edgar’s assessment, comparing it to waterboarding, and said it met the Supreme Court’s standard for cruel and unusual punishment.
Citing the Supreme Court decision, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine delayed the execution of Warren Henness, who still remains on Ohio’s Death Row for the murder of his drug-abuse counselor, while state officials could look at other drug options.
DeWine’s spokesperson said the governor’s reprieve on recent executions has not been related to just one specific drug, however, but the ability to find any drugs.
How alternative methods of execution are working in other states
As the drugs used for executions have become harder to find, states are looking at new methods — even returning to older methods, like electrocution and firing squads, to execute their prisoners.
In 2018, Alabama became the third state — along with Oklahoma and Mississippi — to authorize the untested use of nitrogen gas to execute prisoners. Death would be caused by forcing the inmate to breathe only nitrogen, depriving that inmate of oxygen.
According to the Associated Press, lawmakers thought it could be a more humane way of execution, though critics said it amounts to human experimentation.
No state has used it to carry out an execution, though Alabama reported that it has a system in place for it, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
In May, South Carolina added a firing squad as a method of execution, attributing its hiatus in executions to an inability to secure lethal injection drugs after the state’s last batch expired in 2013.
The Death Penalty Information Center has been tracking the recent developments in executions across the United States. The non-profit organization was founded in 1990 to provide in-depth reports and analyses on the history and new developments of the death penalty.
One thing that has remained true, according to the center’s deputy director Ngozi Ndulue, is that as new methods are developed, lawsuits often follow.
“When we have execution methods that haven’t happened in decades, or you have one that, no one has ever been executed with one, I think that there is definitely going to be litigation. And then you also have states that have set up their procedures in ways that almost guarantee last-minute litigation,” Ndulue said.
In South Carolina’s case, Richard Bernard Moore was to be the first firing squad execution in the United States since 2010, but the state’s high court issued a temporary stay on the April execution. Moore’s attorneys had challenged the constitutionality of South Carolina’s execution methods, which also include the electric chair. Lawyers argued that both methods are “barbaric” methods of killing and questioned prison officials’ claims that they couldn’t get lethal injection drugs.
Traditionally, a prisoner who is executed by a firing squad is bound to a chair with a hood pulled over his or her head. Standing in an enclosure 20 feet away are shooters armed with .30-caliber rifles loaded with single rounds. One of the shooters is given blank rounds. The shooters then fire at the inmate, aiming at his or her heart.
In another controversial method, reports say Arizona refurbished its gas chamber and purchased the chemicals used to make hydrogen cyanide gas. Critics compared it to the method that the Nazis used during the Holocaust to kill hundreds of thousands of Jewish people at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The Associated Press reports that while a few other states have lethal-gas execution laws on the books, Arizona is the only one that still has a working gas chamber. Its last lethal gas execution was carried out in 1999.
State corrections officials did not respond to WKBN’s request for comment on its planned procedure.
In April, a judge denied a request by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix to bar the state from using cyanide gas to carry out executions in Arizona. The judge ruled that the state’s constitution allows for the use of lethal gas in death penalty cases, and inmates are given the choice between lethal gas and injection, though no inmates have picked lethal gas so far.
An appeal has been filed in that case.
Potential litigation aside, even if Ohio were to pursue another method of execution, it would have to get the materials first.
In 2001, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft stopped electrocution as a form of capital punishment in Ohio. In 2002, Ohio’s electric chair, nicknamed “Old Sparky,” was decommissioned and disconnected from service. The original electric chair was donated to the Ohio Historical Society, and a replica electric chair was donated to the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society.
Is society getting away from the death penalty?
Virginia abolished the death penalty last year, becoming the 23rd state, and the first in the South, to eliminate capital punishment. The repeal was significant because the state was a leader in executions.
Those in favor of the repeal cited the death penalty’s legacy and connections to slavery and lynching.
During the peak of modern-day executions in the U.S., the states were executing about 98 prisoners per year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Now, there are less than 30 per year.
There are a few reasons behind this, Ndulue says.
“One of the things that I will say that really has contributed a lot to this erosion of the death penalty is further awareness that innocent people get wrongfully convicted and do get sentenced to death,” she said.
There are also financial implications.
“From the moment that a death penalty case starts, it’s more expensive than any type of case,” Ndulue said.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections did not have information on the cost of executing a prisoner, but the Death Penalty Information Center reports that studies consistently show that it is actually more expensive than alternative punishments. One big factor driving up the cost is the cost of the appeals process and legal protections in death penalty cases.
Ohio Public Defender Timothy Young, writing for the Ohio Bar Association, cited a 2014 report from the Dayton Daily News that reported that Ohio taxpayers pay approximately $3 million per death penalty case compared to $1 million per life without parole case.
According to the latest release from the Ohio Department of Corrections, the average daily cost to house each inmate is $97, with a total yearly budget of over $1.5 million.
Ndulue said with those things in mind, officials in various states have decided that it’s not worth the effort.
“It’s just like, ‘Wait, so we’re jumping through all of these hoops when we know that the most likely outcome of any death sentence that is imposed is that they’re going to end up with a life sentence?’ It’s much less likely for a death sentence to result in an execution than it is for the death sentence to actually be reduced to life,” she said.
In total, just 11 inmates were executed across the U.S. in 2021.
The question is how long will Ohio wait out what to do with the death penalty? With no pending legislation to approve other forms of capital punishment, Death Row inmates will sit and wait through their appeals — inmates like Warren Spivey, who broke into the Youngstown home of 53-year-old Veda Vesper in January of 1989, stabbing and beating her to death during the robbery.
Spivey was sentenced to death in November of 1989 for the crime, but he sat in the Chillicothe Correctional Institution until Jan. 17, 2020, when he died of natural causes.
The question now is whether Danny Lee Hill’s prison sentence will end the same way.