Gov. Ted Strickland on Monday delayed the state's next two executions to allow a full review of lethal injection procedures, the latest in a series of unprecedented capital punishment developments in Ohio.
Strickland ordered the reprieves for condemned inmates Lawrence Reynolds, scheduled to be executed Thursday, and Darryl Durr, scheduled to die next month, in the midst of a legal battle over Reynolds' execution.
Reynolds' execution was delayed until March 9, Durr's until April 20. Strickland said the Ohio corrections department needed more time to finish updating protocols for dealing with long delays in finding suitable veins on inmates.
The surprise announcement Monday came as the U.S. Supreme Court weighed whether to allow Reynolds' execution, for strangling his 67-year-old neighbor in 1994, to proceed. Earlier Monday, a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had delayed the execution, citing problems with the planned Sept. 15 execution of Romell Broom.
On Sept. 15, Strickland stopped the lethal execution of Broom after state executioners struggled for two hours to find a usable vein. Until it was halted, the execution had taken the longest in Ohio to date, and Strickland's order to stop it was unprecedented nationally since the country resumed executions in the 1970s.
Ohio has put 32 people to death since 1999, when executions resumed there.
Strickland said prison staff has been researching backup or alternative procedures for lethal injection since Sept. 15 that would comply with Ohio law.
"Although they have made substantial progress in this regard, more research and evaluation of back-up or alternative procedures is necessary before one or more can be selected," Strickland said.
Effect on executions elsewhere?
The backup procedure will also require training and other preparation, Strickland said. Death penalty experts say it could be months before it's clear what effect Broom's case could have on executions elsewhere.
Texas executed two people immediately after Broom's execution was stopped. Virginia is preparing to put Washington-area sniper John Allen Muhammad to death next month.
Jon Sheldon, Muhammad's attorney, said he had no plans to raise an injection issue as part of an upcoming appeal. He said it's difficult to challenge the constitutionality of injection in Virginia because the state keeps many details of its process secret.
Virginia, unlike Ohio, does not permit witnesses to view the insertion of the IVs. It also shields its protocols, considering them related to security, said Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Texas also does not permit anyone to witness the placement of the IVs.
Unprecedented second attempt
Broom's execution is on hold while his attorneys prepare for a Nov. 30 federal court hearing. They argue that an unprecedented second execution attempt on Broom violates a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The impact of Broom's case nationally will probably become clearer once U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost holds that hearing, said Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor and lethal injection expert.
The reprieves Strickland issued Monday provide some insight into the governor's position on how Ohio executes people, since he could have gone even further, said Lori Shaw, a University of Dayton death penalty expert.
"What he hasn't done is put a moratorium on executions," she said. "He took this step, but he didn't take a greater leap."
Judge Boyce Martin said Broom's case raises questions about Ohio's lethal injection procedures, including the competence of the state's execution team.
"Given the important constitutional and humanitarian issues at stake in all death penalty cases, these problems in the Ohio lethal injection protocol are certainly worthy of meaningful consideration," Martin wrote.
He said Frost should consider the cases of Broom and Reynolds together in November.
Policy on finding veins
Judge Jeffrey Sutton dissented, arguing that the state's policy addresses a scenario in which executioners can't find suitable veins after repeated attempts.
"Why assume an execution protocol is unconstitutional when one of the humane features of the protocol — that the State will not continue trying to access a usable vein beyond a sensible time limit — is being followed?" Sutton wrote.
The state argues that problems accessing Broom's veins don't mean that other inmates can't be executed properly.
Inmates in several states have experienced delays with the injection of lethal chemicals, but those executions always proceeded the same day.
Prosecutors say Reynolds strangled Loretta Foster, who lived three doors down in their neighborhood in Cuyahoga Falls near Akron, when he needed money to fuel his alcohol addiction.
"We are disappointed for Loretta Foster's family, who has waited a very long time to see Reynolds' sentence carried out, and ultimately, to see final justice for her murder," said Brad Gessner, criminal division chief at the Summit County prosecutor's office.
Durr, of Elyria in Lorain County, was scheduled to die Nov. 10 for raping and strangling a 16-year-old girl, Angel O'Nan, in 1988.
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