ACLU of Ohio Sues to Prevent State From Censoring Last Words of Death Row Prisoners

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
July 6, 1999 12:00 am

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Tuesday, July 6, 1999

COLUMBUS — The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed suit today in federal court, seeking to overturn a corrections department regulation that would effectively silence condemned inmates during their final moments.

The regulation, which governs the conduct of executions at the Southern Ohio Correctional facility in Lucasville, would require death row inmates to submit their last words to the warden in writing six hours before execution. The warden could then, at his sole option, read some, none, or all of the inmate’s dying statement to the press following the execution.

In legal papers filed with the court, the ACLU said that regulations allowing officials to censor speech in advance of its release, or to edit the content of a speakers message, run afoul of the First Amendment.

Kevin Francis O’Neill, Assistant Professor of Law at Cleveland Marshall College of Law, and a cooperating attorney for the ACLU, said that the state’s attempt to silence prisoners at the moment of execution goes against a legal tradition stretching back to before the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

“For nearly 700 years, condemned prisoners in England and America have been afforded the modest dignity of being able to speak their last words uncensored,” he said.

The ACLU is seeking a court order to prevent the governor, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and the Warden at Lucasville from putting the regulation in force.

“Cases such as this, where a government official can stop or alter the speech before it becomes public, are a classic First Amendment violation long recognized in American law,” said Raymond Vasvari, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio.

The condemned inmates named in the case are Fred Treesh and Melvin Bonnell.

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