SUDDES: Will Ohio follow Alabama’s lead on death penalty?



Repeated postponements of scheduled Ohio executions during Republican Mike DeWine’s governorship suggest that at least until he leaves office in January 2027, the only factors that might end the life of anyone on Ohio’s Death Row (117 men and one woman) are illness or old age.

That’s the backdrop for why DeWine’s fellow Republican, Attorney General David Yost, and some Ohio House Republicans are championing Alabama’s new execution method as an option for Ohio – the administration of readily available nitrogen in lieu of lethal injections of hard-to-obtain drugs.

Ohio’s last execution, in July 2018, took place during the administration of DeWine’s predecessor, suburban Columbus Republican John R. Kasich.

For many Ohioans of faith, opposition to the death penalty can come in tandem with opposition to abortion. DeWine is foursquare against abortion. Yet in what now may be second thoughts about the death penalty, DeWine as a state senator had helped write Ohio’s current (1981) death-penalty law.

Polling in Ohio in September by the Tarrance Group, a Republican firm, suggests a majority of Ohioans opposes capital punishment. Key findings, released last week by the No Death Penalty Ohio coalition:

  • 56% of those responding said Ohio should abolish the death penalty and replace it with life sentences without the possibility of parole;
  • 56% said the risk of executing innocent people is too great.
  • 57% said life imprisonment rather than the death penalty was the appropriate punishment for first-degree murder; and,
  • 58% said the governor should sign a bill replacing the death penalty with life sentences without the possibility of parole.

(The survey’s margin of error is +-3.9%.)

The coalition also highlighted a racial disparity: About 13.3% of Ohio’s population is African American, while, as of January, 55.8% of the inmates on Ohio’s Death Row were African American.

DeWine has repeatedly postponed executions because he’s said Ohio can’t obtain the appropriate drugs for lethal injections. In 2019 he said the pharmaceutical industry might refuse to sell any drugs to the state if it learned the state had used some for executions, the Associated Press reported. For a time, DeWine also cited a federal magistrate-judge’s concerns about the constitutionality of Ohio’s lethal-injection execution method, the AP said.

Yost – who’s considering running for governor in 2026 – is supporting a law proposed by some House Republicans to give Ohio the option to deploy so-called “nitrogen hypoxia,” used recently by Alabama.

In a statement, Yost’s office said, “With this procedure, a condemned inmate breathes only nitrogen, leading to oxygen deprivation, which results in rapid unconsciousness and death.”, of Birmingham, reported the execution of the condemned Alabama prisoner, Kenneth Eugene Smith, this way: “The gas appeared to start flowing at approximately 7:58 p.m. Smith visibly shook and writhed against the gurney for around two minutes. His arms thrashed against the restraints. He breathed heavily, slightly gasping, for approximately seven more minutes. At one point, his wife cried out ... Smith appeared to stop breathing at 8:08 p.m.” In terms of humane-ness, it’s hard to see how that’s an improvement over lethal injection.

Pending right now are two death penalty abolition bills – Senate Bill 101, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio, a Lakewood Democrat, and Sen. Steve Huffman, a Tipp City Republican, and House Bill 259, sponsored by Reps. Jean Schmidt, a Loveland Republican, and Adam Miller, a Columbus Democrat.

Is a death-penalty abolition bill likely to pass anytime soon, especially given that 2024 is an election year? No. But it’s fair to imagine that Mike DeWine wouldn’t mind if, someday, one did.

Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University. You can reach him at

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