COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The latest request for mercy from a death row inmate in Ohio comes as executions have ground to a halt and the future of capital punishment in the state is being questioned by an unlikely lawmaker — the conservative Republican House speaker.
The Ohio Parole Board planned a clemency hearing Tuesday for condemned killer Gregory Lott, who is asking to be spared from the death sentence he received for killing John McGrath in East Cleveland.
Records show Lott broke into McGrath’s home on July 13, 1986, doused him with flammable lamp oil, set him on fire, ransacked his home and then stole McGrath’s car. The victim died 10 days after the attack.
Lott, 58, is scheduled for execution on May 27, 2021. Following Tuesday’s hearing, the parole board will issue its recommendation to Gov. Mike DeWine, who has the final say.
“By commuting Gregory Lott’s death sentence, Governor DeWine would be strengthening Ohio’s criminal justice system in fundamental ways,” Lott’s attorneys argued in a Jan. 28 petition to the parole board.
Even if Lott loses his bid for mercy, it’s uncertain he would ever face execution. Though Ohio had the country’s second busiest death chamber after Texas as recently as the mid-2000s, the state can no longer find lethal drugs for even a single execution and has repeatedly delayed executions as a result. Lott alone has received two reprieves in the last year, including one last week.
Ohio’s last execution was carried out in July 2018. Nationally, fewer than 30 people were executed last year and under 50 new death sentences were imposed for the fifth straight year, part of a continuing decline in capital punishment.
DeWine has acknowledged executions are at a standstill in Ohio because of the drug issue. The governor has repeatedly said he is concerned that drug makers — which oppose the use of their drugs in executions — could pull pharmaceuticals from state hospitals to punish Ohio if it did secure their drugs and use them for lethal injection.
Meanwhile, Republican House Speaker Larry Householder says his GOP caucus is starting to talk about the dilemma of having an expensive law that can’t be enforced because of the lack of drugs. It’s a striking stance for Householder, who trumpeted his conservative credentials in a 2018 commercial in which, dressed in hunter’s garb, he described himself as a “pro-gun, pro-life Christian conservative,” and then shot up a TV airing an anti-Householder ad.
“So, I look at it from purely from a fiscal conservative standpoint and say maybe it’s time that we take a look at putting people away for life in prison with no parole,” Householder said Feb. 4 at a annual legislative forum sponsored by The Associated Press.
Householder’s Senate counterpart, GOP President Larry Obhof, is skeptical, saying he believes capital punishment should be an option for the most heinous crimes.
DeWine and Householder’s positions show how much the politics surrounding the death penalty have changed in two decades, to the point it’s no longer a campaign liability to express opposition, said Doug Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and death penalty expert.
“Now Republicans with different sets of conservative credentials feel comfortable at the very least raising questions and arguably being kind of central to blocking death sentences from being carried out,” Berman said.
Courts have taken different positions on Ohio’s defunct three-drug execution method, but as recently as December, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reaffirmed its conclusion that Ohio’s method didn’t pose an unconstitutional risk of severe pain and suffering.
Among the arguments from Lott’s attorneys in favor of clemency are that Lott is intellectually disabled and that family members of his victim — including McGrath’s surviving daughter and grandchildren — support mercy.
Lott’s attorneys also argue prosecutors wrongly told jurors that Lott entered the apartment intending to kill McGrath, which made the case eligible for the death penalty.
Finally, they say that a long-criticized part of Ohio’s death penalty law was used against Lott, namely the “felony murder” charge which transforms murder charges into capital punishment cases whenever a crime is committed during a burglary, robbery, kidnapping or other crime. A 2014 Ohio Supreme Court task force report called for the end of such charges since they result “in capital charges being brought in cases that are not ‘the worst of the worst.’”
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office says Lott has never fully acknowledged his guilt or accepted responsibility, and notes the crime was one in a long string of burglaries and assaults in which Lott targeted the elderly.
Prosecutors also say McGrath’s two closest surviving friends both want Lott executed.
“Lott has not offered this Board any reason that would justify the extraordinary grant of clemency by the Governor,” Christopher Schroeder, an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor, said in a Feb. 5 filing with the board.