As Ohio resumes executions in the new year, death row inmate Ronald Phillips is scheduled to die on January 12, 2017. Phillips was sentenced to death in 1995 for the 1993 rape and murder of his girlfriend’s three year-old daughter, Sheila Marie Evans.
Phillips, originally from Akron, OH, has always had a fear of needles. According to the Associated Press, this fear stems from his childhood, when he would witness his parents sell drugs and let strung-out addicts shoot up in their kitchen.
Negative sentiments against the death penalty in Ohio have been expressed on Denison’s campus through speakers like Jim and Nancy Petro. A former auditor and attorney general of Ohio and former Cuyahoga County commissioner, Petro is now a member of Ohioans to Stop Executions’ board of directors with his wife Nancy. Denison also welcomed death row exoneree Ronald Keine to tell his story in 2014. And in 2016, Sister Helen Prejean, a staunch death penalty opponent, was the keynote speaker at Denison’s 175th commencement.
Courses such as Jack Shuler’s “Dead Man Walking: Executions in America” contribute to the discussion on the death penalty by examining its history and present issues with executions.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Ohio has performed 53 total executions, placing it in the top ten states with the most executions. Texas tops the list at 538.
Phillips’ execution has been delayed several times over his 20-plus stay on death row. The most recent delay occurred when he requested to donate a kidney to his mother in 2013. This request was ultimately denied. However, attorneys are still attempting to vacate the death sentence for Phillips.
Last Thursday, the Ohio Parole Board held a clemency hearing at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections for Phillips. The hearing started at 9:00 a.m. and didn’t conclude until 6:30 p.m. After hearing from the defense and prosecution, the board did not make an immediate decision, so it’s unclear whether or not Phillips’ execution will be vacated or delayed.
While Phillips’ defense team is responsible for some of the delays, a moratorium that was placed on executions after Dennis McGuire’s botched experience in 2014 is a significant reason why Phillips still lives on death row.
McGuire’s execution lasted 26 minutes. Executed on January 16, 2014 for the murder of his girlfriend and unborn child, McGuire was the first to be executed with a new lethal injection cocktail. The drugs: midazolam and hydromorphone, a sedative and narcotic painkiller respectively, were injected into McGuire’s arm at 10:27 a.m. Lawrence Hummer, a pastor McGuire requested at his execution, said that three minutes into the execution, “‘he lifted his head off the gurney, and said to the family who he could see through the window, ‘I love you, I love you,’ then laid back down” (2015).
At 10:58 a.m., his stomach began to swell. For the next ten minutes, according to Hummer, “he struggled and gasped audibly for air.” Hummer cringed for the next 11 minutes while “McGuire was fighting for breath, his fists clenched the entire time.” Hummer heard his gasps through the glass wall. “The gasps turned to small puffs like a dying animal fighting for another breath.”
At 10:53 a.m., the warden finally called the time of death. McGuire’s execution was the longest since 1999 when Ohio resumed executions. According to an article by Jeremy Pelzer from 2015, McGuire’s family, traumatized after witnessing his death, ended up filing a federal lawsuit in January of 2015 saying he suffered needless pain. In February of 2015, less than a month later, his family dropped the lawsuit after Ohio said it would not use the two drug combo again.
Despite McGuire’s family’s attempt to ban the two drug combo, and unfortunately for Phillips, Ohio will use midazolam along with rocuronium bromide, which paralyzes the inmate, and potassium chloride, a substance that stops the heart, reports Andrew Welsh-Huggins in a 2016 Associated Press article.
Kevin Werner, Executive Director of Ohioans to Stop Executions, isn’t new to reading about heinous crimes. But some have wondered why he would continue to fight for the abolition of the death penalty when these heinous crimes occur.
“The work I do on the death penalty isn’t necessarily always for the inmates. I think a lot of them don’t belong there, I don’t think they’re the worst of the worst, but they are all there for horrific crimes,” Werner begins. “But in those tough cases what I really think about is the impact on the victim’s family.”
Werner, a father himself, understands the emotional reaction people have toward a case like this because he recognizes his kids have also been the age of Sheila Evans. “I get that people want justice and want to exact revenge, but I also think about how this is a family who had unimaginable things happen to them. They have to relive it every time there’s a hearing or something new happens with the case.” At this point, Sheila’s family has been reliving this for over 20 years.
“So in this case I empathize more for the family who has lost a loved one. I ask myself, ‘what do they really need? Do they need to be back in court or do they just need this person to go anonymously away into the prison system.’” Werner believes that the latter is often the better outcome for families.
“That’s where the empathy is in these cases—with the family,” he said.
But Phillips still sits on death row awaiting his execution. Now in his early 40s, he has medium length salt and pepper hair with a goatee and mustache to match. He smiles with his eyes when he looks into the camera, his hands firmly clasped together. Without the crime attached to him, he just looks like a normal guy with a fear of needles.