The status of a dozen Ohio executions scheduled over the next two years was uncertain following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Wednesday to allow a temporary delay in capital punishment to stay in place.
The state now finds itself in the position of having a death penalty system that remains constitutional in the eyes of the courts but being unable to put inmates to death because of issues with how that system is conducted.
Attorney General Mike DeWine said a lot can happen between now and the next scheduled execution in April.
"I would not predict that this means the end of the death penalty in Ohio," DeWine said. "Nor would I venture to guess frankly what kind of delay this means."
The U.S. Supreme Court without comment refused to allow the state to proceed with the execution of Charles Lorraine, the condemned killer of an elderly couple in 1986. The execution has been delayed by federal courts over concerns that the state continues to deviate too often from its written rules for lethal injection.
Federal courts must monitor every Ohio execution "because the State cannot be trusted to fulfill its otherwise lawful duty to execute inmates sentenced to death," the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month.
The court upheld an earlier decision by U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost that chided Ohio for not following his warnings to adhere strictly to their policies.
"Do not lie to the Court, do not fail to do what you tell this Court you must do, and do not place the Court in the position of being required to change course in this litigation after every hearing," Frost wrote.
The deviations criticized by Frost came during an execution last fall. They include switching the official whose job it is to announce the start and finish times of the lethal injection and failing to properly document that the inmate's medical chart was reviewed.
Lorraine, 45, of Warren, has spent years unsuccessfully appealing his death sentence. Records show that Lorraine stabbed 77-year-old Raymond Montgomery five times with a butcher's knife and stabbed his bedridden wife, 80-year-old Doris Montgomery, nine times before burglarizing their Trumbull County home in 1986.
Republican Gov. John Kasich has rejected Lorraine's plea for mercy on the grounds of a troubled childhood, lousy legal representation and a prosecutor who violated rules of conduct at trial.
Lorraine's attorneys praised the ruling.
"We are hopeful that Governor Kasich will listen to the Supreme Court, the Sixth Circuit, and Judge Frost and halt further executions in Ohio," Lorraine's federal public defenders said in a statement.
The office of Attorney General Mike DeWine had argued to the U.S. Supreme Court that minor deviations in policy don't mean the system is unconstitutional.
DeWine had said that without Supreme Court action, Ohio is in danger of having dozens of executions delayed on a case-by-case basis.
The effect of Frost's ruling "is that any variation from the execution protocol _ great or small, intentional or mistaken _ amounts to a constitutional violation," DeWine said in the state's appeal. "This distortion of equal protection cannot stand."
DeWine repeated Wednesday that the variations were small and didn't affect the actual execution.
The state had delayed the Feb. 22 execution of a second inmate, convicted arsonist Michael Webb, while the appeal worked its way through the courts.
It's likely that other inmates will follow suit and ask for delays until the issue over the deviations is resolved.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached at http://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.