Saturday, June 04, 2011

Uncertainty demands clemency for death-row inmate

The following commentary by Marilyn Johanek was published in the Toledo Blade on June 2, 2011.

Shawn Hawkins has friends in high places. Not only does the Ohio death row inmate have all the usual opponents of capital punishment working to spare his life, set to
end in 13 days, but even conservative, pro-death penalty Republicans are on board.

Last weekend, an unusual appeal on Hawkins' behalf appeared in some Toledo Diocese parish bulletins. It encouraged the faithful to contact Gov. John Kasich and press for leniency.

In February, the Catholic Bishops of Ohio, including Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, called on lawmakers to abolish executions. Now the Catholic Church appears determined to bring its influence to bear on a particular clemency cause.

So who is Shawn Hawkins, and why should we care whether he dies by lethal injection on June 14th? Court records show he was a small-time criminal and convicted drug dealer before a jury found him guilty of killing two Cincinnati men in 1989 in an apparent drug deal gone bad.

He admits he helped arrange the deal, but he has steadfastly denied that he committed the double-murder. If it weren't for the powerful backing his case has received from prominent death-penalty proponents, I'd plead indifference.

I have little interest in or sympathy for the doomed on death row who proclaim their innocence or find religion as their date with the grim reaper nears. The brutal murder of my cousin years ago hardened me to prison compassion.

Yet when state Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati) and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, both well-known conservatives who support the death penalty, said they believed Hawkins should receive mercy, I was intrigued. Former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, now Mr. Kasich's chancellor of higher education, agreed with his Republican colleagues and joined them to write to the governor and Ohio Parole Board asking that Hawkins be spared.

Then, in a most uncommon development, the parole board voted unanimously to recommend clemency. That's happened only a handful of times since Ohio resumed executions in 1999, putting 44 convicted killers to death since then.

Only six condemned inmates have had their execution sentences commuted to life in prison without parole. Three argued successfully that addiction or disease warranted mercy, and three, like Hawkins, contended their innocence did.

The parole board said it wasn't convinced that Hawkins, who at 42 has spent half his life in prison, was innocent. But the clemency report said uncertainty about the appropriateness of the death sentence in his case sealed the recommendation.

Defense attorneys maintain that doubt surrounds every element of the Hawkins saga, and the parole board was persuaded. The litany of problems in the case includes flawed evidence -- a partial fingerprint of Hawkins found at the scene of the murders allegedly was handled improperly -- changing stories from the sole eyewitness to the crime, and the possible involvement of other people who were never fully investigated by police.

The parole board also was bothered by what it considered Hawkins' ineffective original counsel and a prosecution that never established the defendant possessed the murder weapon. More troubling were claims by the inmate's lawyers that new forensic analysis disputed the prosecution's contention that one of the victims was killed in a car by Hawkins. Three witnesses came forward to provide alibis for him for the time of the murders.

Hawkins is no Boy Scout. But was he the perpetrator of cold-blooded, execution-style slayings, or merely an accomplice to the crime? If the latter, does his crime merit execution?

His lawyers insist the case is less about guilt or innocence than about whether the state is prepared to kill people when the evidence against them is unclear. In an April 18 letter to Governor Kasich, Mr. Blackwell wrote that Hawkins does not deserve to die.

"The quality of evidence against him and the manner in which the trial was conducted are not such that he should suffer such a fate," Mr. Blackwell wrote.

"Beyond a reasonable doubt" is the standard of proof we insist on in criminal trials, because a defendant's liberty or life may hang in the balance. It doesn't mean absolute certainty but, as one legal definition puts it, "proof of such a convincing character that you would be willing to rely and act upon it without hesitation."

In Hawkins' case, reasonable doubt caused the parole board to conclude that execution could be an irreversible wrong. Mr. Kasich cannot take that risk.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

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