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Just Us - Ohio Style

By John Perotti

Three days before former Ohio Governor Dick Celeste left office he commuted the death sentences of Donald Maur, Leonard Jenkins, Willie Jester, Crazy Horse Seiber, Debra Brown, Rose Grant and Elizabeth Green to life in prison. Celeste also commuted the prison sentences of Saram Bellinger and Ralph Deleo to time served and issued full and unconditional pardons to Freddie Moore and John Salim. Celeste, who opposes the death penalty, commuted the death penalties of those male prisoners closest to execution and all female death row prisoners.

On January 14, 1991, George Vainovitch became Ohio's Governor. Vainovitch joined the clamor of well publicized outrage by Ohio's law enforcement officials and prosecutors at these commutations and vowed to put these prisoners back on death row. Vainovitch, now joined by Reginald Williamson, Director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, filed a civil action in the Court of Common Pleas for Franklin County. The lives of these prisoners were now in the hands of Judge Sherwood who was asked to issue a declaratory judgement whether or not Celeste had authority to issue commutations without following administrative procedure by waiting for the Adult Parole Authority (APA) to investigate and issue a recommendation for or against commutation to the Governor.

In the meantime, Maur, Jenkins (who's paralyzed from the waist down and already condemned to life in a wheelchair), Jester and Seiber were removed from death row at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) and placed in general population as were Grant and Green at the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW). Debra Brown was under a death sentence in Indiana. Saram Bellinger and Ralph Deleo were released from prison. Leonard Jenkins was transferred to Marion Correctional Facility in Marion, Ohio.

But the public was not to be denied it's thirst for blood. On February 13, 1992 Judge Sherwood issued a final order declaring that former Governor Celeste was not vested with constitutional power to issue commutations or pardons without first receiving a full report on the individuals from the APA. It should be noted that the cases had been referred to the APA prior to the commutations for investigation reports but the APA had stonewalled on the report in hopes of delaying until Vainovitch (who is pro-death penalty) came into office. It should also be noted that Celeste was not bound by the APA's denial or recommendation of commutation. He could override their decisions.

The prisoncrats response was to transfer Jenkins back to SOCF and place him and the other commuted prisoners back on death row, both there and at ORW. The state giveth and the state taketh away.

There is a strong argument to be made that commuting a prisoners death sentence, then reversing the commutation a year after releasing them from death row, subjects the prisoners in question to double jeopardy and to cruel and unusual punishment. These legal avenues should be pursued by attorneys and jailhouse lawyers. Meanwhile, Ohio moves one large step closer to barbarism.

There is something you can do. Letters protesting this latest outrage against prisoners should be sent to: Governor George Vainovitch, State House-Governors Mansion, Columbus, OH, 43216.

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