Saturday, 17 February 2007

Death penalty supporters, opponents write Ohio governor's office

Death penalty supporters, opponents write Ohio governor's office

Associated Press

In one of the nation's busiest death penalty states, letters to Gov. Ted Strickland are running almost 5 to 1 in favor of ending capital punishment or temporarily stopping it to study the system.

Strickland supports the death penalty, but almost immediately after taking office, he delayed the executions of three condemned killers while he reviewed their cases. The decision resonated in Ohio, where former Gov. Bob Taft let 24 executions proceed with little hesitation.

An Associated Press review of correspondence Strickland received since his election and running through Feb. 15 found 125 letters or e-mails from death penalty opponents. That number does not include letters asking for specific killers to be freed without reference to the writer's position on the death penalty.

"Killing people is wrong. Please end the death penalty in Ohio," Gerald and Andrea Breen of Cincinnati said in a handwritten note on Jan. 20.

"I firmly believe that human life is given by God as sacred and that only He has jurisdiction over each person's life and death," wrote Sister Rose Clement Stalter of Columbus, a nun with the Dominican Sisters and one of several nuns who wrote Strickland opposing capital punishment.

Another 27 letters urged Strickland to keep the state's death penalty in place.

"Please don't mess with the death penalty," Gene Metz, a warehouse clerk in Harrison, challenged Strickland in a Jan. 28 e-mail. "It is the only tool that we have left to deal with killers."

That opponents' figure does not include about three dozen letters specifically urging the execution of individual inmates, 27 of them from relatives and friends of Tami Engstrom, murdered by Kenneth Biros in 1991.

Strickland, the first Democrat elected governor in Ohio in 20 years, indicated shortly after being sworn in last month that he was worried about having enough time to review the case files for upcoming executions. On Jan. 19 he officially delayed the executions of Biros and two other inmates.

Both supporters and opponents of capital punishment interpreted Strickland's actions as the possible first step toward a moratorium. But Strickland says people shouldn't assume anything.

"If I were to decide I was going to have a moratorium on executions, I would just say so," Strickland said. "People are reading between the lines, and there's nothing written there."

Ohio executed five people last year, second highest in the country after Texas with 24. From 2002 through 2006 Ohio executed 22 people, a tie for third with North Carolina and behind only Texas and Oklahoma.

After Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine took office last year, his office received hundreds of letters regarding the first execution he oversaw in April 2006. Spokesman Kevin Hall attributed the unusually high number to Kaine's well-known personal opposition to the death penalty.

Death penalty opponents "in particular had some expectation that they might have more of an impact by making contact," said Hall, who also worked for Kaine's predecessor, Gov. Mark Warner.

But Kaine, a Democrat, also said he would uphold the law and he let that execution go on, along with three of four other cases that have come before him.

In Florida, newly elected Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican and death penalty supporter, has received only 22 letters and e-mails split evenly between capital punishment backers and opponents.

"I wouldn't say we felt like it was high or low," Crist spokeswoman Kathy Torian said.

Florida executed 21 inmates under Crist's predecessor, Republican Jeb Bush. The state has a temporary moratorium on executions while a commission studies whether changes are needed in the way the state carries out the death penalty.

Bush created the commission after December's botched execution of Angel Nieves Diaz, who survived for more than a half hour after being given two doses of the lethal injection drugs.

A Feb. 1 poll by Quinnipiac University found that 60 percent of Ohio voters supported Strickland's decision.

The governor granted Biros a reprieve until March 20. He also delayed the executions of James J. Filiaggi until April 24 and Christopher J. Newton until May 24.

Some of the most heartfelt letters Strickland received came from relatives of Engstrom, a 22-year-old woman who was stabbed 91 times by Biros on Feb. 7, 1991 in Trumbull County, then strangled and dismembered.

"Sorry for Kenneth Biros I will never be," Engstrom's father, James Heiss, wrote in a December letter. "I think he has been kept alive way beyond the years he deserves as my Tami was snuffed out of her life at such a young age and was not given a choice on living or dying."


Gov. Ted Strickland:

Gov. Tim Kaine:

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