Ohio passes bill clouding execution process

In Ohio, 138 men on Death Row await execution in Lucasville, Ohio, above, with the lone woman sitting on death row in Marysville.

In Ohio, 138 men on Death Row await execution in Lucasville, Ohio, above, with the lone woman sitting on death row in Marysville.

Ohio will add secrecy to executions of death row inmates next March 20 — assuming the governor signs a bill passed yesterday.

The measure will allow the state to keep private the names of companies that make drugs used for executions, along with medical personnel who administer the drugs.
Supporters of the bill said the state needed to provide confidentially in order to obtain the drugs. Like other states with capital punishment, Ohio has had difficulty obtaining drugs for lethal injections, with manufacturers worried about negative public reaction to their participation in the process.
Opponents — including SPJ — argued against the bill as limiting transparency around executions.
While Ohio Gov. John Kasich is expected to sign the bill next week, the debate could go on. “Prosecutors who want a condemned child killer executed in February say the legislation will undoubtedly lead to court challenges, and they’re confident the procedure won’t happen as scheduled,” the Associated Press reported.
One other silver lining: The bill went through with an amendment calling for the law to be “sunset” after two years. During that time, a study committee will consider issues addressed in the bill — and others related to capital punishment. Sen. John Ecklund, R-Chardon, chair of the Ohio Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said the study committee can recommend anything it wishes, including an end to the Ohio’s death penalty, according to the Hannah Report, a newsletter that covers the Ohio Statehouse.
Ohio has scheduled 11 executions for the next two years, with the first set for Feb. 11. The state carried out just one execution in 2014 — the fewest since 2001, according to Ohioans to Stop Executions. Because of the drug protocol used in that procedure, it went badly and prompted a federal judge to impose a de facto moratorium on executions for the balance of the year.
Thanks to former SPJ national president Kevin Smith, now with the Ohio State University’s Kiplinger Center for Public Affairs Reporting, for presenting SPJ’s concerns about the bill at two hearings. Thanks, too, to President Dana Neuts and the SPJ communications office (Jennifer Royer and Taylor Carlier) for issuing statements on the matter over the last month.
Stay tuned: The fight for transparency on this (literal) life-and-death issue is not over. It could very well be back in the headlines in February, when Ohio moves Ronald Phillips to the “Death House” in Lucasville.

 

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Mr. Smith goes (back) to Columbus

SPJ stalwart Kevin Smith returned to the Ohio Statehouse this week to once again present the Society’s objections to a bill that would add secrecy to Ohio’s death penalty. In addition to submitting a statement, Smith offered this round-up of the proceedings:

Former SPJ prez Kevin Smith lobbied against a "Secret Executions" bill this week. (Photo by Brittani Ray.)

Former SPJ prez Kevin Smith lobbied against a “Secret Executions” bill this week. (Photo by Brittani Ray.)

The Ohio Senate Criminal Justice Committee will hold a second and final hearing likely next week on HB663, the “Secrecy Execution Bill.” The committee heard testimony from five groups in opposition to the bill on Thursday, including SPJ, Ohio Newspaper Association, The Ohio Office of the Public Defender, the Catholic Conference of Ohio and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Testifying for SPJ was me.

I was asked several questions by the chairman, Sen. John Eklund, along with  Sen. Jim Hughes. At one point Hughes asked me what I thought would be a respectable time for releasing of the names of the pharmaceutical companies and physicians involved in the administering of the death drugs. I said, in the public’s interest, such matters should be made available immediately. A public act that creates a public record is public information upon its creation, I said.

At one point chairman Eklund took issue with social media posts I shared late Wednesday afternoon regarding the agenda. On the senate committee’s website, the agenda was conspicuously missing any title or bill reference, unlike the other two. I noted that a secrecy bill was showing greater secrecy because it was merely identified as HB663, not by title. The agenda handed out at the meeting Thursday morning had the bill title.

Eklund accused me of impugning his and the committee’s names by suggesting that they were intentionally trying to hide the work from the public. I told him that the facts before him were the facts: it appeared on the committee website at the end of the business day without reference and that was worthy of criticism. He said it was an oversight. I’ll take him at his word. In this environment of secrecy in Ohio, one expects the worst.

The bill was attacked on several fronts, from the lack of access to public information, to issues regarding medical malpractice, contract law violation and civil rights. All parties are in agreement that the federal government will find this unconstitutional on many fronts upon a first challenge.

The committee adjourned without stipulating when the next hearing would be.

Alan Johnson of the Columbus Dispatch filed this report about the Thursday hearing. Andrew Welsh-Huggins of the Associated Press, meanwhile, reported more issues with death penalty sentences in Ohio, as the Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday voted 4-3 to overturn a 1996 death penalty conviction because of poor representation for the accused.

(Sidenote: As a longtime watcher of death penalty news — I taught an investigative reporting class dedicated to the topic a few years back and also profiled an anti-death penalty nun– I offer thanks to Johnson and Welsh-Huggins, two of just a few Ohio journalists who continue to cover Ohio’s penal system aggressively.)

 

 

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Ohio Senate: Round 2 for execution bill

The Ohio Senate Criminal Justice Committee will take up House Bill 663 — the so-called “Secret Executions” bill — twice this week. An informal hearing is set for Tuesday, Dec. 2, at 10:45 a.m. at the Statehouse. A “first reading” will follow at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Want to write a member of the committee to speak against the bill? Here is the full list of committee members: http://www.ohiosenate.gov/committee/criminal-justice.
Want to send a statement to the Committee Chair? Go here:
Ohio residents can also reach their state senator via the Ohioans to Stop Executions site at http://action.otse.org/page/speakout/secret-executions-bill. (Input your ZIP code to send a form letter to your senator.)
Region 4 veteran Kevin Smith, a former national SPJ prez now at Ohio State University’s Kiplinger program, is planning to attend the Thursday hearing to speak against the bill.
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“Secret Execution” bill moves forward

The Ohio House of Representatives passed a so-called “Secret Executions” bill on Thursday, 61-25, a day after a House committee pushed it out to the full chamber with a 9-4 vote.

The Senate will likely take up a version of the measure after Thanksgiving.

The bill is bad for journalists in Ohio (and elsewhere) as it adds secrecy to a process already plagued by controversy. It is aimed primarily at keeping secret the identities of manufacturers of lethal-injection drugs and of medical professionals who administer the drugs — but would have wider implications for transparency on capital punishment in the state.

SPJ joined the fight against the bill. Former national SPJ president Kevin Smith and I drafted a statement that he presented before the committee on Wednesday, Nov. 19. Current president Dana Neuts reacted with a statement of her own following the committee vote.

Meanwhile, Ohio’s penal system got another black eye this week, when a judge exonerated two Ohio inmates convicted for a 1975 murder. Both had spent time on Death Row during their incarcerations.

The effort to fight the Secret Executions measure will continue when it reaches the Ohio Senate. Ohio is scheduled to execute its next Death Row inmate Feb. 11, 2015.

 

 

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No on ‘secret executions’

patOhio has had a long and problematic history with capital punishment. It has executed 393 convicted murderers in its history, first via hanging, then in the electric chair and since 1993 with lethal injection. Put out of the death business in 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional, Ohio made the practice legal in the state again in 1981. Since actually resuming executions in 1999, Ohio’s practices have sparked constant controversy.

Finally in 2011, Ohio’s Supreme Court assembled a task force to investigate those controversies, issuing a report in April with a range of sound recommendations.

Now comes House Bill 663 – the so-called Secret Executions Bill – that would make the already difficult job of covering capital punishment more difficult.

The bill would allow the state to keep secret “information and records that relate in any manner to the execution of a death sentence and that are made confidential, privileged, and not subject to disclosure under the bill’s nondisclosure provisions,” according to an analysis by the non-partisan Ohio Legislative Service Commission.

While the bill is aimed at banning the public from learning what drugs Ohio uses for executions, who provides them and who administers them, the broad language – prohibiting release of  “information … in any manner” related to those topics– flies in the face of Ohio’s sunshine laws.

More specifically, the bill would make secret information about lethal injection formulations just as Ohio grapples with critical decisions about how to carry out executions while avoiding cruel and unusual treatment of condemned inmates. Ohio, recall, has botched four executions in recent years, mostly recently last January when its newest “drug cocktail” took 25 minutes to kill inmate Dennis McGuire.

In reaction to the McGuire case, the state said it would change its drug protocol – again – and U.S. District Judge Greg Frost put a moratorium on executions through January.

HB663 threatens to put capital punishments behind the curtain at a time when transparency could not be more essential.

Ohio has scheduled 11 executions through the end of 2016. Another 128 Death Row inmates await their execution dates.

As long as Ohio law still allows for the death penalty – and legislative efforts to repeal the practice routinely fail – journalists must be allowed to report fully and fairly on how the state applies the death penalty in all of those cases.

The Ohio House Policy and Legislative Oversight Committee will conduct its second hearing on the bill Tuesday, Nov. 18, at 2 p.m. in room 115 of the statehouse in Columbus. A third hearing – and possible vote – will follow on Wednesday, Nov. 19, at 3:30 p.m. in the same place. The bill, introduced less than two weeks ago on Nov. 10, would become law March 20 if passed.

Now is the time for journalists – and anyone committed to transparency on this issue – to weigh in.

Here are your options:

  • Contact bill sponsors Rep. Jim Buchy, R-Greenville, at 614-466-6344 or www.ohiohouse.gov/jim-buchy and Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, at 614-466-9624 or www.ohiohouse.gov/matt-huffman.
  • Contact other members of the House Policy and Legislative Oversight Committee, listed at http://www.ohiohouse.gov/committee/policy-and-legislative-oversight
  • Sign a petition against the bill, drafted by Ohioans to Stop the Death Penalty, at www.otse.org.
  • Show up at the Statehouse hearings this week.

 

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Race & media on Nov. 13

Hats off to the Point Park University Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for a putting together a super relevant program for Nov. 13. 

The Pittsburgh student chapter will present “The Ethics of Representing Race in Media: Combating Profiles and Stereotypes by 1 Hood. Thanks to chapter adviser Aimee-Marie Dorsten for forwarding the chapter’s flyer:

THE ETHICS OF REPRESENTING RACE IN MEDIA: COMBATING PROFILES AND STEREOTYPES
by

An Alternative Media Performance-Workshop**

Thursday, Nov. 13
7pm
200 Lawrence Hall/Multipurpose Room

FREE

Featuring:
Jasiri X
Rapper and New Millennium Civil Rights Activist

Free Audio Download http://jasirix.bandcamp.com/track/trayvon
For more information:
 1hood.org
You Tube Search: Jasiri X

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‘Law & Media’ on Oct. 10

The Central Ohio chapter will once again pair with the Ohio State Bar Association for its annual Law and Media Conference. The Oct. 10 event at the Bar Association offices will include:

  • Lawyers, journalists, judges and academics discussing hot media law topics.
  • CNN’s Martin Savidge as guest panelist in a plenary session titled “Data Privacy and the News: Hackers, Leakers, Journalists and Spies.”
  • Concurrent seminar topics that include reporting on political mudslinging within legal and ethical limits, open meetings, accessing public records, mediating public records disputes, using digital analytics to measure audiences, Internet’s effect on journalism, native advertising, libel and “twibel” and the effect of online comments on news credibility.

Joining the Columbus SPJ chapter and Bar Association as sponsors of the Media and Law Conference are the Ohio Newspaper Association and Ohio Association of Broadcasters.

The registration form includes costs and other information.

 

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Cincy restaging ‘Cabaret’

The Greater Cincinnati chapter wants local journos to bring their war stories to its second annual JOURNALISM CABARET on Oct. 8.

With an “open mike” setting, journalists are invited to take to the stage to tell stories about their best, their worst or their funniest experiences in journalism.

Want in? Show up at the Below Zero Lounge, 1122 Walnut St., 6-9 p.m.

Bring your stage face. Costumes optional. First drink on the chapter; open bar thereafter.

Contact chapter prez Tom McKee at tmckee@wcpo.com with questions.

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Athens in 2015

 

OU's SPJ chapter picked up Campus Chapter of the Year in Nashville.

OU’s SPJ chapter picked up Campus Chapter of the Year in Nashville.

Calender update: Be sure to save the date for the regional conference in Athens, Ohio, March 20-21. The Ohio University chapter is taking the lead and already has a game plan for sessions.

But — big BUT — we need wide region involvement! So if you have an idea for a panel or a suggestion on who might be a good panelist for the list of likely panels, reach out to our most excellent chapter adviser in Athens, Nerissa Young, at young2@ ohio.edu or 740.593.2675.

She’s standing by at this very moment for your suggestions!

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Columbus fetes Smith

Kevin Smith picked up SPJ's top honor for his work on the new Ethics Code and other efforts.

Kevin Smith picked up SPJ’s top honor for his work on the new Ethics Code and other efforts.

Kevin Z. Smith — former SPJ prez, former R4 regional director and former long-time chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee — will be the guest of honor at the Central Ohio Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists/Ohio State University event Oct. 2, related to Ethis in the Media and SPJ’s new Code of Ethics. Smith won SPJ’s highest service award at the September national convention in Nashville, the Wells Key Memorial Award.

Smith is deputy director of the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at Ohio State University.

The Columbus/OSU event will be on OSU’s campus in Room 106 of the Journalism Building, 242 W. 18th Ave., at 6 p.m.

Congrats to Smith for his leadership of the revision and the Ethics Committee!

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