Elyria Chronicle-Telegram: Ohio shouldn’t pursue new execution method

Ohio shouldn’t follow Alabama’s lead when it comes to executing condemned inmates with nitrogen gas.

The method, which causes the condemned to suffocate as the body is deprived of oxygen, was tested last week when Alabama executed convicted killer Kenneth Eugene Smith.

The execution did not appear to go as smoothly as Alabama officials had promised. They had argued that Smith would quickly fall unconscious and die as he inhaled the gas.

Instead, the execution took about 22 minutes and witnesses said Smith appeared to remain conscious for several minutes, shaking, writhing and pulling against the restraints on the gurney, The Associated Press reported.

That is not the description of a humane execution.

Alabama officials described Smith’s movements as “involuntary,” which apparently was good enough for Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican.

Yost, along with state Reps. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, and Phil Plummer, R-Dayton, said Tuesday that the Buckeye State should add nitrogen gas to its execution kit.

Ohio hasn’t executed a death row inmate since 2018, when convicted killer Robert Van Hook was put to death via lethal injection. (Two Lorain County men, James Filiaggi and Daniel Wilson, have been executed this century. Two others, Stanley Jalowiec and Freddie McNeill Jr., remain on death row. All were convicted of horrific crimes.)

GOP Gov. Mike DeWine has said he doubted that an execution would be carried out during the remainder of his term, which runs through the end of 2026. (Yost is widely believed to be considering a gubernatorial run.)

The unofficial moratorium is in large part the result of pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to sell the state the drugs used in lethal injections, the only legal form of execution under Ohio law.

Yost, however, argued that the state needs to find a way to carry out lawfully imposed death sentences.

“Saying that the law of Ohio should be thwarted because pharmaceutical companies don’t want to sell the chemicals is an abdication of the sovereignty of the state of Ohio, which still has this law on the books,” Yost said, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

Nitrogen gas is widely available and should be used when lethal injection isn’t an option, Yost said. The bill put forward by Stewart and Plummer would allow death row inmates to decide whether they would prefer to die from lethal injection or nitrogen gas if both options were available. It also contains worrying secrecy provisions.

This isn’t the first time that death-penalty supporters have floated an alternate form of execution. For example, in 2018, then-Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, now an Ohio Supreme Court justice, proposed reviving firing squads.

The idea went nowhere in Ohio, but other states, also facing shortages of lethal-injection drugs, have brought back the option of firing squads.

We have never been persuaded that it would be a good idea to return to the brutal execution methods of yesteryear, whether by firing squad, hanging or electrocution. Those methods, we believe, crossed over into “cruel and unusual” punishment, which is specifically prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.

Indeed, part of the reason states and the federal government shifted to lethal injection was because it resembled a medical procedure and therefore appeared less barbaric — at least on the surface.

Yet lethal injections haven’t always worked as advertised. Sometimes prison officials have struggled to find suitable veins on condemned inmates. Other times the drugs haven’t taken hold as quickly as they were supposed to, leaving inmates struggling and thrashing.

Based on what happened in Alabama, there is reason to fear that inmates might suffer an agonizing death if nitrogen gas is used again in executions.

Whether that happens in Ohio could be complicated by a bipartisan push by some state lawmakers to abolish the death penalty.

We have supported those efforts because the problems with capital punishment extend far beyond how executions are carried out.

For example, it’s up to county prosecutors whether to seek the death penalty in a particular case, which means it is unevenly applied across the state. There also are troubling racial disparities when it comes to who faces and receives a death sentence.

Death penalty cases also can drag on for years as the legal process plays out, leaving not only the condemned but the families of victims in limbo. Such reviews are necessary to ensure that no one is wrongly executed.

Which brings us to perhaps the most glaring problem with the death penalty: The justice system doesn’t always get it right.

Between 1973 and 2023, 196 death row inmates, including 11 from Ohio, have been exonerated through DNA and other evidence., according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Given those issues, Ohio would be better served to abolish the death penalty rather than to seek a new way to carry out executions.