US inmate to be first executed in Ohio in three years

26 July 2017 - 10:11 By AFP
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction photo shows death row inmate Ronald Phillips, incarcerated at Chillicothe Correctional Institution in Chillicothe, Ohio, U.S. since 1993.
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction photo shows death row inmate Ronald Phillips, incarcerated at Chillicothe Correctional Institution in Chillicothe, Ohio, U.S. since 1993.
Image: REUTERS/THIRD PARTY.

The US state of Ohio planned to execute its first prisoner in more than three years Wednesday, putting to death a man convicted of raping and murdering a child.

Ronald Phillips, 43, faces execution by lethal injection at 10 am local time (1400 GMT), ending Ohio's moratorium on the death penalty, as officials searched for a new combination of drugs to put inmates to death.

States have struggled to find adequate supplies of drugs, as pharmaceutical companies have restricted the use of their products amid waning support among the American public for the death penalty.

Court challenges have ensued as states have tried new drug cocktails.

A federal appeals court ruling last month endorsed a new drug combination to be used in Ohio, reinstating executions in the Midwestern state and paving the way for Phillips's death sentence to be carried out.

'Worst of the worst' 

Phillips was 19 years old in 1993 when he was convicted of raping and killing three-year-old Sheila Marie Evans, his then-girlfriend's daughter. He admitted to his crimes, but said his own sexual and physical abuse at the hands of his father were mitigating circumstances not considered at trial.

The state twice denied his clemency petitions.

In the second denial in December 2016, the Ohio state parole board wrote, "Phillips's crime involved the killing of a vulnerable three-year-old victim, an abuse of trust, and extensive victimization, therefore making it among the worst of the worst capital crimes."

The three-drug combination which Phillips will be administered includes the controversial sedative midazolam, the focus of a federal lawsuit brought on behalf of Phillips and two other Ohio inmates.

 Execution not 'pain-free'

The suit alleged the drug did not adequately anesthetize to avoid suffering during an execution.

A federal judge and a three-judge panel of the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the inmates, ruling that the drug combination posed too great a risk of unconstitutional "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Federal Magistrate Judge Michael Merz of Ohio pointed to multiple other state executions in which the drug insufficiently sedated inmates, likely leading to suffering.

Ohio halted executions after the 2014 lethal injection of Dennis McGuire using midazolam, during which the inmate appeared to snort and gasp.

But the state argued that its new drug protocol calls for a 50-times greater dose of midazolam, which makes it more effective, and asked the full panel of the 6th Circuit court to reconsider the three-judge panel's decision.

In an 8-6 vote last month, the full appeals court panel sided with the state.

"We will grant that the plaintiffs have shown some risk that Ohio's execution protocol may cause some degree of pain, at least in some people," the court wrote in its opinion.

But "the Constitution does not guarantee 'a pain-free execution,'" it added.

The United States has executed 14 people in 2017, eight using a drug cocktail including midazolam, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

While the death penalty is legal in a majority of US states, only 49 percent of Americans nationwide support capital punishment for murder, the lowest level of support in more than 40 years, a 2016 Pew poll found.

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