Area GOP lawmakers split on plan to restart executions in Ohio



As some Ohio lawmakers push to restart executions following Alabama’s first-of-its-kind nitrogen hypoxia execution, the debate over the death penalty has exposed a rift among southwest Ohio’s delegation.

State Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., is one of several key players behind House Bill 392, a newly proposed bill that would essentially set nitrogen hypoxia as the default means of execution in Ohio, while also allowing an inmate to choose lethal injection if the state could access the drugs.

Plummer expects the bill, supported by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, to pass the House, but said he’s “concerned about the Senate because certain senators don’t like it, but I can’t control the Senate.”

Locally, Plummer is joined in support by Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester, and Rep. Rodney Creech, R-West Alexandria, but there are a handful of lawmakers in both chambers and both parties of the Statehouse that might dig in their heels on anything that fast tracks more executions.

Rep. Willis Blackshear, Jr., D-Dayton, the area’s lone Democrat, told this news organization that he disagreed with the death penalty in general, but held specific concerns about using nitrogen gas. He called Alabama’s execution experimental, unconstitutional and cruel and added that Ohio would likely need to spend millions to repeatedly defend such a law in court.

“Folks talk about being pro-life, but then in the same breath they say, ‘These folks deserve to die in a cruel and unusual way.’ I don’t know, I don’t think that’s the route we need to go at all,” Blackshear said.

Area House Republicans opposed to the death penalty include Rep. Andrea White, R-Kettering, and Rep. Adam Mathews, R-Lebanon. Both lawmakers joined a handful of other Republicans to support a bill to abolish the death penalty that is currently stalled in committee.

Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, has led the charge in the state Senate on abolishing the death penalty on ideological grounds for several legislative sessions. In the past, Huffman has been joined by Sen. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, Sen. George Lang, R-West Chester, and a smattering of Republican and Democratic senators. His efforts, too, have twice stalled in committee.

For Lang, his reservation with the death penalty is measured.

“To be clear, I’m not opposed to the death penalty. I think there are some crimes worthy of the death penalty when the evidence is empirical, it’s irrefutable, it’s indisputable,” Lang said. “What I am against is the system as it operates today, which relies too heavily on non-empirical information.”

Lang believes that it’s possible for the current system to execute a wrongfully convicted inmate. Specifically, he said he has a problem with eyewitness testimony being used in capital punishment cases, given that eyewitnesses have been shown to be relatively inaccurate. He said he wouldn’t support a restart until the system changes.

Rep. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton, told this news organization that she wants to learn more about the effects nitrogen gas has on the body before she comments directly on the bill. She said she had concerns with the Alabama execution.

“I agree with capital punishment, I do. I don’t know how I feel about this new method, I’ll be honest,” Carruthers said. “I think a quick death is better, even if it’s gunshot, to be honest with you. I don’t see any reason in prolonging the body in this or anything else.”

Ohio executions stalled

Gov. Mike DeWine, a former Greene County prosecutor and state senator who long ago helped legalize capital punishment in Ohio and now wields veto power, said he too needs more time to consider nitrogen hypoxia.

While the governor declined to comment on the specific legislation, he told Statehouse reporters last week that there are “serious questions” about whether the death penalty acts as a deterrent against violent crime.

“If you had 10 things to do to reduce crimes, 10 things to do to save lives, the death penalty would probably not be on that top 10 list,” DeWine said.

Difficulties obtaining lethal injection drugs have caused an unofficial moratorium on executions since the summer of 2018, which has led to a backlog of about 30 inmates that have exhausted all appeals and now await their execution date.

In 2020, DeWine challenged lawmakers to come up with a new execution protocol, but in the time since, the state has largely seen death penalty abolitionists go on the offensive, trying several times to push legislation that would ban capital punishment altogether.

Nitrogen hypoxia

Nitrogen hypoxia is a form of suffocation induced by putting a direct supply of pure nitrogen gas over an inmate’s mouth and nose, depriving the lungs of oxygen.

Nitrogen is the most abundant gas in the air we breathe and is easy to extract, compress and sell in pure supply — as many companies across Ohio do — which makes the gas an attractive proposition for folks looking for new ways to carry out executions as states across the country struggle to obtain lethal injection drugs.

As reported by the Associated Press, the Alabama execution went according to plan in the eyes of state officials, but was criticized for taking too long and being too experimental by opponents.

AP wrote that the inmate, 58-year-old Kenneth Eugene Smith who was sentenced to death on murder charges, appeared to remain conscious for a period before he began to shake, writhe and pull against his restraints for at least two minutes. The man then had a minutes-long period of labored breathing followed by imperceptible breaths. It took about 22 minutes, all told.

‘Something that will work’

Plummer, a former Montgomery County sheriff, told this news organization that nitrogen hypoxia is the best, most palatable alternative to lethal injections and dismissed some of the ethical concerns brought up in the wake of Smith’s execution.

“People are saying the guy twitched a few times. Well, how many times did (his) victim twitch, you know? I mean, I’m not real compassionate about the killer who wasn’t compassionate about killing his victim,” Plummer said in an interview with this news organization. “I think this is a newer method that worked, (and) we have to get something that will work.”

For Plummer, a functioning death penalty is as much about justice as it is about protecting guards, social workers and other inmates inside Ohio prisons.

“People kill people on the streets; we put them in prison. There’s times they kill people in prison. So, the same killers keep killing,” Plummer said. “We have to protect the guards, we have to protect the system. What do you do with that guy?”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Follow DDN statehouse reporter Avery Kreemer on X or reach out to him at or at 614-981-1422.

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