Death row murderer tries to forgo appeals

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

Page 3

COLUMBUS — Murderer Wilford Berry wants to be the first man since 1963 to die in Ohio’s electric chair, and state attorneys told the Ohio Supreme Court yesterday his wish should be granted.

Public defenders, however, said Berry, 35, is mentally ill and appeals on his behalf should continue.

Berry, who killed a Cleveland bakery owner in 1989, is trying to forgo the years of appeals that are required in all death-penalty cases. At issue yesterday before the high court was his mental competence to make such a decision.

“He is saying, ‘I am guilty, I accept my punishment, I know what I’m doing, I know what I want to do,'” said Simon Karas, who argued the case for the attorney general’s office.

J. Joseph Bodine, Jr., who represented the public defender’s office, said three doctors who have examined Berry – two under court order – have agreed that he suffers from a severe mental disorder that makes his thought process rigid.

“He is unable to take in important information and unable to process it,” Mr. Bodine said. “In this case, it gives him a death wish.”

Justice Evelyn Stratton pointed out that Berry had an average IQ, had no hallucinations or suicidal thoughts, and was on no psychotropic medication. The two court-ordered evaluations, despite finding mental disorders, said Berry was competent.

“Where is the clinical evidence?” Justice Stratton asked.

Mr. Bodine said a defense psychologist has found Berry incompetent to withdraw further appeals.

Some justices questioned the efficiency of the legal system if appeals could not be voluntarily avoided. “The whole process begins to look really foolish if that can’t be done,” Justice Paul Pfeifer said.

But defense attorneys said Berry was in no position to determine the course of his appeals.

“The man is sick,” said Greg Meyers, chief counsel of the death penalty unit in the public defender’s office. “You can’t just let a sick man determine his punishment.”

Even mentally competent people should not be allowed to skip the appeals process, Mr. Meyers argued.

“We owe it, before we execute somebody, to check everything out,” he said.

Ohio has not executed anyone since March 15, 1963, when 29-year-old Donald Reinbolt went to the electric chair. The death penalty was reinstated in 1981, but “Old Sparky,” the state’s chair, has not been used since.

“People don’t believe we have a death penalty in Ohio,” Mr. Karas said. “In an appropriate case, it should be used.”

Berry was injured on Sept. 5 when death-row inmates rioted at the Mansfield Correctional Institute. Prison officials said that the riot was inspired in part by the inmates’ anger at Berry’s wishes to end his appeals and be executed.

The court gave no indication when it will rule in the case. Attorneys for both sides said the outcome will be appealed.