Ohio Case Revives Lethal Injection Controversy

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland has delayed a lethal injection after executioners couldn't find a suitable vein in the inmate. Now, other death sentences have been put on hold in Ohio. Associated Press reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins explains how the botched execution may have repercussions for death row inmates in other states.

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The State of Ohio has put 32 people to death since 1999.

Last month, Governor Ted Strickland ordered a review with the way Ohio carries out capital punishment after the execution of convicted rapist Rommell Broom had to be stopped. Medical authorities tried for two hours to find a usable vein in which to inject lethal drugs and failed. It was the first time in recent history an execution had to be stopped after it was started.

Of course, Ohio was not the only state that conducts executions. Texas leads the country with 18 thus far this year. Virginia is getting ready to execute John Allen Muhammad, the D.C. area sniper convicted of the murders of 10 people in 2002.

The botched execution in Ohio renews concern about lethal injection here and in other states.

Associated Press Reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins has covered death penalty issues here in Ohio for 10 years and joins us now from Ohio Public Radio's Statehouse News Bureau here in Columbus.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS (Reporter, Associated Press): You're welcome.

CONAN: And Rommel Broom, remind us, was convicted of the kidnap, rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. As we talk about these controversies over the death penalty, we sometimes forget about the original crimes.

Mr. WELSH-HUGGINS: That's right. And as a sign of how the death penalty works, this crime actually happened 25 years ago in Cleveland in 1984. A 14-year-old girl was walking with friends and he essentially ambushed them, kidnapped her, and murdered her. He has been on death row all this time. His case finally went through all its appeals. He was - received a death sentence and he was to be executed on September 15th.

And as you reported, the process began - the execution team tried multiple times to find a usable vein, which basically involves a process - if you've ever given blood or been in a hospital where you've received an IV, it's very similar. People are trying to insert needles into your veins. They tried several times, were not able to - they could get a vein but then it would not hold the line and so they had to start over.

The process in Ohio, up until that moment, allowed the execution team as much time as they needed. We had a case three years ago where an inmate was actually on the gurney in the death chamber, the chemicals were supposed to be flowing, and he actually sat up and pronounced - it don't work. They got a pretty good sense there was a problem at that point.

Since then, the execution team members have been free to take their time. The idea was, perhaps, they were under a bit of time pressure. Now, they're allowed to relax, take their time. But it was clear after an hour or so that there was a real problem. They actually took a break, went back, and about two hours in, Governor Strickland - on consultation with the prisons director - did order the execution stop. And at the time, he granted a one week reprieve. I should point out that not only was that unprecedented in Ohio, that's pretty much unprecedented nationally.

And as some people may recall, the only other time an execution in the United States has ever been stopped, at least in the last century, was in 1946 in Louisiana when a 15-year-old boy was in the electric chair, something went wrong, he was taken out. A year of court battles later, he was put back in the electric chair and executed. But this case in Ohio is really without any other example.

CONAN: Well, what's going to happen now with Romell Broom?

Mr. WELSH-HUGGINS: At the moment, he's - he does have a court reprieve. A flurry of court filings later, he has a very significant November 30th hearing in Federal Court. His attorneys are making the argument that this is not a person who should be put to death, again, at all - that to try to execute him again would be cruel and unusual punishment. It would violate his 8th Amendment rights. And he simply should not be executed again.

The state clearly is arguing the opposite. They say what he went through was really not cruel and unusual at all. It was simply a first failed attempt. They argue that, in fact, the execution hadn't even started; that he was simply in the initial phase of preparing for it. This is all going to unfold at the end of November before a federal judge, and then he'll be onto, probably more appeals after that.

CONAN: We're talking with Andrew Welsh-Huggins of the Associated Press about the death penalty controversy here in Ohio.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Andrew, the previous controversy over the lethal injection has been over claims that, at least in some cases, it could cause the person being executed enormous pain. We wouldn't see it. But nevertheless, that would be a reason why it's cruel and unusual. After this example, here in Ohio, are more states beginning to raise questions about lethal injections?

Mr. WELSH-HUGGINS: Well, what you're going to see is a lot of attention paid to exactly what happened here. Last year, the US Supreme Court did uphold the process of lethal injection. They said that as a method, this method is constitutional. So they actually dealt with that whole issue of whether even if an inmate appears to be not moving, is he really suffering pain.

Well, the US Supreme Court said, as a method, this three-drug cocktail system does pass constitutional muster. What you are going to see, though, is that a lot of defense lawyers and a lot of states are paying attention to what will happen with Romell Broom, because if they come up with a situation that's similar - where a state is taking too long or it's not working right and it's something similar to what he went through - they're going to have grounds for an appeal. And they may have grounds for an appeal long before particular inmate ever even gets into the death chamber. So you won't see this stopping lethal injection in the United States, that's been settled. But you will see it used in probably several individual execution cases coming down the road.

CONAN: And there are two who are now on hold here in the state of Ohio because of this controversy with Mr. Broom.

Mr. WELSH-HUGGINS: That's right. The governor - as though stopping the execution wasn't unprecedented enough, the governor then halted an execution that was to have happened last week as well as another one that was scheduled for next month. He gave each of those inmates a five month reprieve. And he did that so that the state prisons department could come up with another way to do this, either a backup, a system where maybe they'll inject the drug straight into bone marrow or into muscle, or maybe that will become the primary method that they'll do that by. That's a problematic approach, because if the state dramatically alters the way it puts inmates to death by injection, then, in fact, it does open itself up to legal challenges, because up until now, our system has been similar to the one that the US Supreme Court upheld. But if we change it dramatically, then it would be something that could be challenged.

CONAN: And we're talking about the technique of execution here in Ohio and used in other states as well. There are broader questions being raised about the death penalty itself. Following a case in Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of setting fire to his house, killing his three children - executed in February 2004 for arson/murder. Now, though, evidence has come forward that suggests that he was innocent.

Mr. WELSH-HUGGINS: That's right. The last thing I think anyone on any side of the issue would ever want to see is to have an innocent person who was put to death. And the little I know about that case, there has been a lot of changes in, I guess, what we'll call the science of arson investigation over the years-and not just bad case, but a number of crimes have been looked at again.

It's interesting to point out, as well, that the death penalty as an institution is actually on the decline in the United States in the sense that we're sentencing far fewer people to death. But we do have an enormous backlog of inmates on death rows around the country, so we will not see any cessation of executions any time soon.

CONAN: Andrew Welsh-Huggins, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. WELSH-HUGGINS: You're welcome.

CONAN: Andrew Welsh-Huggins, the Associated Press reporter, author of "No Winners Here Tonight: Race, Politics and Geography in one of the Country's Busiest Death Penalty States," with us from Ohio Public Radio's Statehouse News Bureau here in Columbus.

Tomorrow, Randy Olson, our "Flock of Dodos" flame, argues that scientists need to stop confusing people and add a dose of entertainment to their formulas. His new book is called "Don't Be Such a Scientist," joining guest host Rebecca Roberts for that.

I'm Neal Conan in Columbus, Ohio. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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