by Martha Stephens


Martha Stephens, a member of First Church, has been a community activist for many years. A writer, she is retired from the English Department of the University of Cincinnati. Two of her books concern the city of Cincinnati: The Treatment: the story of those who died in the Cincinnati radiation tests (2002); and a memoir Me and the Grandmas of Baghdad (2015). The following is the opinion piece she authored that was published in the Cincinnati Enquirer on January 17.


Much of life is frightening to me today. I’m afraid for all those caught in the horror of war and am ashamed of the brutal actions of my own country in the Middle East. In the U.S. itself I’m afraid of the violence that is propagated here, and I feel, in particular, a nightmarish dread of executions.

If killing is wrong, why would we want to kill people in the name of the state?

No Death Penalty SignThe image that haunts me more than any other is this: A person who has done no one any harm in many years, and has often been a prison counselor or a medic in the weeks before, is given a last meal in his cell, walked down a corridor, strapped to a table and poisoned to death.

We humans can be killers, yes, but we are also creatures of reason, able to examine our own actions. We can decide to do what makes us feel more intelligent and more human, rather than repeating the naked aggressions of the past.

The U.S. is the only developed country where the death penalty still exists. Finland, for instance, had its last peacetime execution in 1825, Belgium in 1863, Germany in 1949, the United Kingdom in 1964.

Twenty-three states in the U.S. have also ceased putting people to death. On Ohio's borders, Michigan had its last execution in 1846, West Virginia in 1965. In recent years, four governors of death-penalty states have taken it on themselves to put a stop to this practice.

Should we ask Ohio Gov. John Kasich to consider such a legacy for himself? Since 1999, when a long pause in Ohio executions ended, 54 individuals, all men, have been executed. The state halted executions again three years ago after a drug cocktail took 25 minutes to kill Dennis McGuire. However, executions are scheduled to resume this year, beginning with Ronald Phillips on Feb. 15, according to Cleveland.com. [http://www.cleveland.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/12/gov_john_kasich_delays_executi.html] Phillips was guilty years ago of an especially tragic crime in Akron – the assault and beating death of a 3-year-old child. He was quickly incarcerated, as all dangerous people must be, and has lived 24 years on death row. Should we now put him to death? I believe many will say no to that kind of vengeance, and not want to be the killers of one who has killed.

In the 1960s, a previous Ohio governor, Michael DiSalle, wrote a book called "The Power of Life or Death" about his opposition to the death penalty. He felt that the only way to protect people was to eradicate the causes of violent crime in poverty and destitution, racial abuse and mental illness. “I believe human life is a divine gift,” DiSalle wrote, “and deliberately to destroy it is as much a crime for the state as for the individual.”

When Ohio became a state in 1803, executions were by hanging. In 1897 the electric chair became the instrument of death, and 315 people were electrocuted.

In 1999 a young man named Wilford Berry, not a killer but convicted as an accomplice to murder, volunteered to die, and many in Cincinnati joined a new crusade against executions. When Wilford Berry died, I was present at the nighttime vigil for him at Lucasville. In those years Sister Alice Gerdeman at Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center [http://ijpccincinnati.org/] took a van of volunteers to every single execution, often leaving long before dawn for a morning death watch.

In the fall of 2015 a Walk to Stop Executions [http://www.otse.org/event/walk-to-stop-executions/] took place on the shoulders of U.S. 23 from Lucasville to Columbus. More than a dozen walkers from Cincinnati took part, sleeping at night on the floors of churches and schools and speaking out at community events.

That's how important we think it is to ask Ohioans not to return to the cruel and unnecessary ways of the past.