Ohio State gives condemned better attorney access Inmate will be able to call to lawyer if anything goes wrong

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

AP Legal Affairs Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- The state will insert intravenous needles into condemned inmates' arms in a more public way so that prisoners will have better access to attorneys in case something goes wrong, The Associated Press has learned.

In the past, executioners inserted the needles in the inmate's cell as witnesses watched on closed-circuit TV. No audio was provided and there was no way to hear an inmate if the process wasn't working correctly.

Starting Thursday, the insertions will take place behind a curtain in the death chamber, where an inmate could call out to an attorney -- separated only by a window -- if the insertion process isn't working.

Ohio has had problems inserting needles in a handful of cases, including the botched 2009 execution of Romell Broom in which the governor stopped the failed insertion procedure after two hours.

"This will allow the attorney present to observe and allow the inmate to communicate with the attorney through the glass in case any issues arise," Carlo LoParo, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, told the AP.

An attorney concerned about how the procedure is going could use a death house phone to contact a fellow lawyer in a nearby building with access to a computer and cell phone, he said. Prison officials would decide on a case-by-case basis what to do if an attorney believes there's a problem, LoParo said.

There's a small catch with the change: The state will still only allow an inmate three witnesses. For an inmate to be guaranteed fast access to a lawyer, he would have to give up one of his designated witnesses, usually a family member.

A federal judge has already ruled that an inmate's constitutional rights aren't violated by having to substitute a witness for an attorney.

Although the prisoner will now be just a few feet from witnesses as the needles are inserted, a curtain will be drawn and the procedure will still be shown only on closed-circuit TVs in the witness viewing area. Using the TVs is meant to protect the anonymity of the executioners and to reduce the pressure they might feel having an audience watching them work, LoParo said.

Even before the change, Ohio had one of the most transparent execution procedures in the country. Several states, such as Missouri, Texas and Virginia, show nothing of the insertion procedure and allow witnesses only to watch as the lethal chemicals begin to flow. In Georgia, officials allow one reporter to watch the needle insertion process through a window.

The change begins Thursday with the scheduled execution of Johnnie Baston, 37, sentenced to die for killing Chong-Hoon Mah, a South Korean immigrant who operated retail stores in Toledo. The victim's family opposes the death penalty and the execution.

Messages left Wednesday with Baston's attorneys and his family were not immediately returned.

Gov. John Kasich last week rejected Baston's plea for mercy and he has no pending appeals. Baston asked for clemency based on the family's opposition to capital punishment and his chaotic upbringing, with his lawyer saying he was abandoned as an infant and would wander the streets with his dog trying to find his mother when he was a boy. He has never seen his mother and was rebuffed by his father when he attempted to move back in with him.

Baston is to be executed with pentobarbital, a barbiturate previously never used by itself in a U.S. execution. Oklahoma uses pentobarbital, but in combination with other drugs that paralyze inmates and stop their hearts.

Ohio switched to pentobarbital after the company that made the drug Ohio previously used, sodium thiopental, announced it was discontinuing production. States around the country have dwindling supplies of sodium thiopental and several have looked for supplies overseas.

Baston arrived at the state death house in Lucasville at 9:52 a.m. Wednesday. He opted against a special meal, as the final meal is called in Ohio, and will be served the regular prison dinner, the menu for which was not yet available.

Published: Thu, Mar 10, 2011