Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Plea to suspend death penalty

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Kirk Bloodsworth spent eight years, 11 months and 19 days in a Maryland prison, sentenced to die for a 1984 slaying he didn't commit.

        On Tuesday, Mr. Bloodsworth told a panel of Ohio legislators he might have been executed if he hadn't had an able attorney and a DNA test that proved he did not kill 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton.

        “My life has been destroyed,” Mr. Bloodsworth said in a voice cracked with tears.

        “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone in Ohio.”

        Mr. Bloodsworth offered the most impassioned plea to date for a bill that would suspend executions in Ohio.

        Sponsored by Rep. Shirley Smith, D-Cleveland, the moratorium would last for at least a year while a special commission reviews all of the cases of the 199 men on Ohio's death row.

        “We're not trying to abolish the death penalty,” Ms. Smith said. “We want a moratorium on it so it can be studied.”

        Though Ms. Smith thinks there could be innocent people on Ohio's death row, it does not appear the legislature will pass her bill or Gov. Bob Taft sign it.

        “The governor does not see the need for a review or a moratorium,” spokesman Joe Andrews said.

        “He feels that in Ohio there are enough safeguards in place.”

        A national debate over executions and the death penalty process has steadily grown outside Ohio:

        • Illinois Gov. George Ryan suspended executions in his state after 13 death row inmates' convictions were reversed over the past two years.

        • Questions over executions in Texas haved dogged Gov. George W. Bush throughout his campaign for president.

        • In June, two Columbia University professors released a study showing critical courtroom errors led to reversals in nearly seven out of every 10 death sentences nationwide.

        • In a story Sept. 10, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that there were errors made by Hamilton County prosecutors in one of every three death sentences since 1988.

        Those errors, involving overzealous or inaccurate statements made by prosecutors in 14 cases, could help condemned killers delay or avoid their executions on appeals.

        Ms. Smith said those concerns should be enough to persuade her fellow lawmakers to delay execu tions and call for a study. But she said she felt lucky even to have a hearing.

        “People were surprised it's got this far,” she said of her bill. “You can't say a system is flawed until you've studied it.”

        Most members of the Ohio Criminal Justice Committee listened to pro-moratorium testimony without commenting.

        State Rep. John Willamowski, R-Lima, disputed testimony from lawyer Tom Luken, a former Democratic congressman from Cincinnati.

        Mr. Luken had told committee members that opinion polls show more people support reforming or abolishing the death penalty.

        “A majority poll once said we should legalize heroin,” Mr. Willamowski said.

        “I didn't support that, either.”


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