Skip navigation

Ohio Governor Reprieves Three Condemned Prisoners

by Chuck Sharman

Ohio prisoners James O’Neal, Jerome Henderson and Melvin Bonnell were all scheduled to die by lethal injection between August and October 2023. However, on April 14, 2023, Gov. Mike Dewine (R) delayed each execution over two years.

DeWine was the state Attorney General when big pharmaceutical firm Pfizer announced in May 2016 that it was imposing “strict distribution controls to block states from obtaining and using its medicines in executions.” Then in January 2017, the federal court for the Southern District of Ohio declared the state’s three-drug execution protocol carried an unconstitutional “risk of serious harm.” However, that decision was vacated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in an en banc ruling issued in April 2017. See: Fears v. Morgan (In re Ohio Execution Protocol), 860 F.3d 881 (6th Cir. 2017).

After that, former Gov. John Kasich (R) forged ahead with three executions that went off fairly smoothly: Ronald Phillips, 43, in July 2017; Gary Otte in September 2017; and Robert Van Hook in July 2018. But a fourth execution was called off for Alva Campbell, 69, in November 2017, when executioners failed to locate a suitable vein for the lethal injection. Campbell then died in prison in March 2018. [See PLN: June 2018, p.56.]

Shortly after DeWine took over the governor’s mansion in 2019, the district court revisited the matter in light of new evidence that it found less favorable to one of the drugs. The sedative midazolam, the district court said, “at any dosage level has no analgesic properties” so it cannot “prevent the pain incident to the second and third drugs” but was in fact “certain or very likely to cause pulmonary edema.” See: Henness (In re Ohio Execution Protocol Litig.), 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8200 (S.D. Ohio).

That was enough for DeWine to pause executions in the state, also publicly fretting that crossing firms like Pfizer might make them shut off the state’s supply of other drugs distributed through Medicaid. He asked state lawmakers to add a different execution method. They haven’t done so yet, and there have been no more executions, either.

In addition to the three prisoners the governor has now reprieved, a fourth is awaiting execution in November 2023: Keith LaMar, who was condemned in 1995 for his role in the murders of four fellow prisoners during riots two years before at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. [See: PLN, Aug. 1994, p.14.]

It remains to be seen who blinks first – Big Pharma, DeWine or state lawmakers dawdling over a pair of bills to abolish the death penalty altogether. Both HB183 and SB103 remain stuck in House and Senate committees, respectively. There is no pending legislation for alternative execution methods, like a firing squad. One of 27 states still using capital punishment, Ohio has 130 prisoners on its death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Additional sources: Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Intercept, WKBN