Many Inmates Scheduled for Execution in Ohio Have Mental Impairments, According to Harvard Study

Following a three-year hiatus, Ohio resumed its state executions in July with the death of Ronald Phillips. According to media witness accounts, there were no "complications" with the execution itself.

Controversy, however, had followed Ohio's capital punishment policies since 2014, when the state oversaw a clunky and potentially unconstitutional execution.

The next inmate to be executed is convicted killer Gary Otte, scheduled for Sept. 13. Ohio has more than two dozen executions scheduled through 2021.

The Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School published a study on those 26 inmates and found an alarming proportion of mental impairments and histories of abuse among them. For example, "At least 17 out of the 26 men (65 percent) experienced serious childhood trauma – horrifying instances of extensive physical and sexual abuse. At least six men (23 percent) appear to suffer from a mental illness."

Read the full document here.

"Our research on individuals facing execution in Ohio turned up some absolutely horrifying stories of abuse, mental illness, and disability," legal director Jessica Brand said in a statement accompanying the study. "In fact, in 88 percent of the cases we looked at, we found significant impairments, many of which were never considered by a judge or jury. This indicates something has clearly gone awry in the state’s implementation of the death penalty."

The report walks through each of the 26 men, listing a brief psychological biography and a contextualized explanation of the crime of which they were convicted.

When it comes time to describe Otte, the Fair Punishment Project writes about how three of the 26 men committed their crimes when they were under the age of 21.

"One​ ​of​ ​these​ ​individuals​ ​is​ ​Gary​ ​Otte​ ​–​ ​the​ ​next​ ​man​ ​scheduled​ ​for​ ​execution​ –​ ​​ ​who​ ​committed his​ ​crime​ ​25​ ​years​ ​ago​ ​when​ ​he​ ​was​ ​just​ ​20​ ​years​ ​old.​ ​ ​Otte also​ ​spent​ ​his​ ​lifetime​ ​suffering​ ​from chronic​ ​depression, ​was​ ​regarded​ ​as​ ​a 'very​ ​sad​ ​little​ ​boy' who​ ​was​ ​socially​ ​isolated,​ ​had psychological​ ​problems, developmental​ ​delays,​ ​learning​ ​disabilities,​ ​and​ ​was​ ​emotionally handicapped. Perhaps​ ​in​ ​response​ ​to​ ​these​ ​psychological​ ​difficulties,​ ​Otte​ ​began​ ​abusing alcohol​ ​and​ ​drugs​ ​at​ ​age​ ​10,​ ​and​ ​first​ ​attempted​ ​suicide​ ​at​ ​age​ ​14.​ ​Six years later,​ ​having received ​​little​​ help, ​​he ​​committed ​​the​​ offenses​​ for ​​which​​ he ​​was sentenced ​​to ​​death. ​​​During ​​the last​ ​25​ ​years,​ ​Otte​ ​has​ ​received​ ​disciplinary punishment​ ​only​ ​a​ ​handful​ ​of​ ​times,​ ​which​ ​is remarkable​ ​compared​ ​to​ ​others with​ ​similar​ ​years​ ​behind​ ​bars.​ ​His​ ​record​ ​shows​ ​just​ ​how​ ​much an​ ​individual can​ ​change​ ​once​ ​his​ ​brain​ ​develops."

(Otte was convicted of killing two Parma residents during a robbery in 1992.)

Elsewhere, the FPP describes David Sneed, who is scheduled to die next year: "David​ ​Sneed​ ​suffers​ ​from​ ​a​ ​mental​ ​illness​ ​and​ ​has​ ​impaired​ ​cognitive functioning​ ​that​ ​borders​ ​on intellectual​ ​disability.​ ​​ ​He​ ​has​ ​been​ ​diagnosed​ ​with 'severe​ ​manic​ ​bipolar​ ​disorder​ ​and​ ​a schizo-affective​ ​disorder​ ​involving hallucinations​ ​and​ ​delusions.'​ ​In​ ​the​ ​months​ ​leading​ ​up​ ​to Sneed’s​ ​crime,​ ​'a treating​ ​physician​ ​concluded​ ​Sneed​ ​was​ ​"suffering​ ​from​ ​a​ ​mental​ ​illness​ ​of​ ​a severity​ ​requiring​ ​hospitalization."'​ ​The​ ​psychiatrist​ ​described​ ​Sneed​ ​as 'psychotic, delusional,​ ​and​ ​.​ ​.​ ​.​ ​assaultive.'​ ​After​ ​his​ ​arrest,​ ​Sneed​ ​was​ ​initially found​ ​incompetent​ ​to​ ​stand trial. ​Once​ ​stabilized​ ​on​ ​psychotropic​ ​drugs,​ ​Sneed regained​ ​his​ ​competency​ ​and​ ​became​ ​a 'model​ ​prisoner.'" (Citations are provided in the document.)

The conclusion drawn in this report is that there are concerns with the overall context of Ohio's rapacious execution calendar. Often enough, limitations in the criminal justice system preclude judicial intervention after appeals have been exhausted. Some inmates in Ohio, include Phillips in his last years, have taken to filing civil complaints and urging a jury trial over the death penalty procedure itself.

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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