Ohio Senate panel backs inmate last-words bill

Friday, January 14, 2000

An Ohio bill that would allow death-row inmates to write, but not speak, their last words before execution passed its first legislative hurdle this week when the state Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-1 in favor of the measure.

Ohio Senate Bill 175 would codify the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections' existing policy regarding the last words of death-row inmates.

The bill reads: “Approximately six hours prior to the execution of a death sentence, the person upon whom the sentence is imposed shall be asked to write a last statement if the person so chooses.”

Under the bill sponsored by Republican state Sen. Eugene Watts, the warden would then read the statement to those individuals, “including members of the news media,” who request it.

At a hearing last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, testified that the measure violates inmates' First Amendment rights.

The Ohio ACLU challenged the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections policy on July 6. The case, Treesh v. Taft is pending in federal district court. Watts introduced his bill on July 27.

“Under the First Amendment, a prisoner has the right to utter his or her last words,” Vasvari said. “We discovered in our research that this is one of the oldest free-speech rights in the Anglo-American tradition.”

Vasvari said that prisoners were allowed to speak their last words in England as far back as 1380. “This right predates basic free-press rights by four centuries,” he said.

“To my knowledge Ohio is the only state with rules that prohibit a prisoner from saying any last words before his execution,” he said. “In fact, Texas has a law that requires prison officials to allow inmates to speak just before their execution.”

However, Jason Wetzel, Watts' legislative aide, says neither the bill nor the existing prison policy violates the First Amendment. “We are not trying to take away the right to freedom of expression with this bill,” he said. “Under the bill prisoners can write out their last statement, which will be read to the public and the media.”

Wetzel reiterated that the bill would simply codify the existing Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections policy.

Vasvari says the last-words bill is just another example of legislators trampling on prisoners' free-speech rights. “It has gotten to the point where legislators in this state are outdoing each other [in] showing who is tougher on crime,” he said.

Democratic state Sen. Mark Mallory was the judiciary committee member who voted against the bill on Jan. 12. “I voted against this bill because the policy in place by the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections is being questioned in court,” he said. “Until a decision is rendered in that decision, I don't think we should push this legislation, which does seem to take away First Amendment rights.”

Wetzel said the bill would now go to the Senate floor where a vote would be taken in late January or early February.