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Republican-supported effort seeks to ban death penalty in Ohio

“Human life is precious. It's not the role of the government to end the life of the citizens,” state Sen. Steve Huffman, a first-term Republican, said.
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COLUMBUS (AP) — Capital punishment would be banned in Ohio under upcoming legislation announced Thursday with both Democratic and Republican support, the latest bipartisan effort to end executions in the state.

The backing of some GOP lawmakers to do away with executions in Ohio isn't new, with numerous abolition bills over the years garnering some Republican support. Even former GOP House Speaker Larry Householder questioned last year whether capital punishment's time had come. But previous efforts have always fallen short.

Backers of the new push believe growing skepticism about capital punishment, along with the state's current moratorium driven by an inability to find lethal injection drugs, provides fresh momentum.

“There is a team right now that is dedicated to ending the death penalty in Ohio," said Sen. Nickie Antonio, a Lakewood Democrat and longtime sponsor of bills to end the death penalty, including a similar, unsuccessful effort in November.

Antonio plans to co-sponsor the latest bill with GOP Sen. Steve Huffman. The first-term Republican said he's evolved to oppose the death penalty both as a doctor and a person of faith. He cited the cost to taxpayers of years of appeals, the lack of available lethal injection drugs and the danger of executing an innocent person. As an alternative, life in prison is a terminal sentence, he noted.

“Human life is precious,” Huffman said. “It's not the role of the government to end the life of the citizens.”

Other Republican supporters of the new effort include Sens. Michael Rulli of Salem, Kristina Roegner of Hudson and Niraj Antani of suburban Dayton, and House GOP Rep. Jean Schmidt of suburban Cincinnati.

“As we have seen in recent polling, public opinion has dramatically shifted against Ohio having the death penalty,” said Michael Hartley of Ohio Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a network of political and social conservatives who question the alignment of capital punishment with conservative principles and values.

“Conservatives’ evolving views of the death penalty have been a major reason for this movement of public sentiment. Ohio is a pro-life and fiscally conservative state. The death penalty no longer represents Ohio’s values, and it is time for our state to finally repeal this policy,” Hartley said.

Last month, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed a bill into law banning the execution of the severely mentally ill, including killers diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder or delusional disorder at the time of their crimes. Backers of the effort announced Thursday point to that law as an example of changing anti-capital punishment sentiment.

Republican Senate President Matt Huffman — Steve Huffman's cousin — said he is a death penalty supporter willing to allow the legislative debate.

“It’s an important criminal justice discussion, especially in light of the fact that the governor has indicated that he will not move forward with any of the executions unless the General Assembly comes back with a different way of it being done,” Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, said Wednesday.

In the meantime, Ohio remains under an unofficial death penalty moratorium. DeWine said in December that lawmakers must choose a different method of capital punishment than lethal injection before any inmates can be put to death in the future, and added that it’s “pretty clear” there won’t be any executions this year.

Before and after that, DeWine has continued to delay multiple executions.

After fellow GOP lawmakers rebuffed anti-crime efforts proposed by DeWine last year, including tougher penalties for people who are repeat violent offenders, the governor added such measures to his two-year state budget plan instead. Those changes will do more for public safety than eliminating capital punishment, DeWine said Thursday, although he didn't take a position on the proposed anti-death penalty bill.

“All of those things are so much more important in regard to saving lives than the death penalty itself,” DeWine said.

Three executions are scheduled in Ohio this year beginning in August, though the likelihood of those being carried out is low. The state’s last execution was July 18, 2018, when Ohio put to death Robert Van Hook for killing David Self in Cincinnati in 1985.

— Contributing to this report was Farnoush Amiri, a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Mahoning Matters also contributed to this report.