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Retiring "Old Sparky" serves the cause of justice in Ohio



Published: Mon, November 26, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Allowing condemned prisoners to choose their method of execution has a kind of quaint charm about it -- a last act of self determination by a condemned person. It's the stuff of movies, where the condemned man gets to light up a cigarette and wave off the blindfold before facing a firing squad.

But such histrionics have no place in the real world, where people are executed for real crimes against society. And so we commend the Ohio General Assembly for passing a bill prescribing only one method of execution in the state and we applaud Gov. Bob Taft for signing the bill.

The lethal injection bill confines Ohio's electric chair -- "Old Sparky" -- to the dustbin of history. Which is just where Sparky belongs.

Ohio's 104-year-old electric chair exacted the ultimate punishment from 315 people in the 66 years it was in use. But it hasn't been used since 1963.

Ohio has only executed two men in those 38 years, Wilford Barry in 1999 and J.D. Scott this year. Both died by lethal injection. But until last week, a condemned person still had the option of being executed by lethal injection or the electric chair.

Logic defied: The option made no sense.

One of the strongest proponents for retiring the electric chair was Reginald A. Wilkinson, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. He considers the electric chair inhumane and was concerned not only about the brutality of electrocution on the convicted killer, but to the trauma that the procedure might cause the prison staff for whom Wilkinson is responsible.

Before the electric chair could have been used in the 21st century, this relic of the 18th century would have had to undergo expensive, wasteful renovation. Ohio could not risk the kind of grisly malfunctions by its electric chair that got the state of Florida international headlines the last few times it electrocuted prisoners.

A real prospect: Yet despite all the reasons that the state had for not wanting to electrocute anyone in this day and age, Ohio was facing the very real prospect of having to do so.

John W. Byrd Jr., who was convicted of the 1983 of killing a Cincinnati convenience store clerk, was scheduled to be electrocuted Sept. 11. He said he chose the electric chair because its use would illustrate what he says is the brutality of capital punishment. It was to be a kind of final statement by a condemned man.

An appeals court, however, postponed Byrd's execution for reasons unrelated to the proposed method of his execution. While Byrd pursues his appeal, he has no scheduled execution date. The legislature acted in the interim to remove the electric chair option from state law.

If the appeals courts uphold Byrd's conviction and death sentence, justice will be better served by lethal injection than it could have been through electrocution.




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