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Ohio prison rules could limit inmates' last words

The final words of condemned prisoners in Ohio could be edited or shortened under new state prison rules announced Thursday, six months after an inmate recited prayers for 17 minutes before he was executed.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The final words of condemned prisoners in Ohio could be edited or shortened under new state prison rules announced Thursday, six months after an inmate recited prayers for 17 minutes before he was executed.

The restrictions would be the first on an inmate's final statement since Ohio resumed executions in 1999.

"The warden may impose reasonable restrictions on the content and length of the statement," the new rules say. "The warden may also terminate a statement that he or she believes is intentionally offensive to the witness."

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction did not have a problem with the length or subject matter of Michael Beuke's comments in May, but decided to revisit the rules because of the potential for future problems, said spokeswoman Julie Walburn.

"It's not our intention to use this restriction without regard to the impact," Walburn said.

"It will certainly be something we use carefully," she said. "We've never used it yet, and if we do, it's something we would do carefully and in a thoughtful manner."

Ohio allowed for unlimited statements after a 1999 lawsuit challenged the policy in place at the time, which permitted only a written statement to be read after an inmate's death. Kentucky and Washington both impose a two-minute limit, while California's protocols allow "a brief final statement."

Virginia allows statements but begins the execution a few seconds later regardless of whether the inmate has concluded. Pennsylvania allows only written statements to be read after an inmate is put to death.

Despite such limitations, the issue has never been settled by the courts, said Kevin O'Neill, a law professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

He said accounts of final statements date back to the 14th century in England and that inmates' right to last words was well-established in the United States by the time the First Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1791.

One inmate's lengthy statement should not be used as a reason to change the policy, said Tim Young, the state public defender.

"Yes, they committed horrible crimes, that's why they're there, but who are we to take away the one final moment to allow them to speak?" Young said Thursday.

"In many cases what they do say is an apology, which is closure for the victims," he said. "Are we going to take that away?"

On May 13, Ohio executed Beuke, a hitchhiker who killed a motorist who gave him a ride and shot two others during a three-week spree that terrorized the Cincinnati area in 1983.

Beuke, 48, apologized for his crime, then recited the rosary and other prayers before he died, choking back tears as he repeatedly said the Hail Mary with rosary beads in one hand. At 17 minutes, it was the longest final statement by a condemned Ohio inmate since executions resumed 11 years ago.

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Associated Press writers Brett Barrouquere, Rachel La Corte, Dena Potter and Mark Scolforo contributed to this report.