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September 2, 2010

Ohio Governor commutes death sentence of Kevin Keith based on innocence concerns

As detailed in this local news report, "Gov. Ted Strickland spared Kevin Keith's life today, concluding that it is "far more likely" he is a murderer than he is not, but there are too many 'real and unanswered questions' to allow him to be executed."  Here is some of the context for the decision:

Keith and his supporters have long proclaimed his innocence.  He sought a full pardon from the governor — even though courts at all levels have affirmed his guilt and the death sentence. Keith's defense team argued that the lack of physical evidence no carpet fibers, DNA or fingerprints on a gun meant the conviction relied on "questionable" testimony from an adult and two children who survived the attack.

The controversial nature of Keith's case attracted support from high-profile individuals and organizations, including John Q. Lewis of the Jones Day law firm of Cleveland who worked on his defense for free, former Republican Attorney General Jim Petro, and the national president of the Innocence Network.

Strickland, a Democrat seeking re-election this fall, set the stage for his clemency decision in an interview with The Dispatch last month in which he said the case "has circumstances that I find troubling." He said his legal staff had been looking into circumstances of the case for weeks.

It was the second time in the last three murder cases set for execution that the governor spared the life of the convicted killer.  He spared the life of Richard Nields in June, but allowed Roderick Davie to be executed in August.

It was also the second time Strickland rebuffed the parole board's recommendation in a capital case. He allowed the execution of Jason Getsy to go forward in August 2009 even though the board voted to spare his life.

Governor Strickland's official statement in support of this clemency decision in available at this link, and it concludes this way:

"It is my view, after a thorough review of the information and evidence available to me at this time, that it is far more likely that Mr. Keith committed these murders than it is likely that he did not.

"Yet, despite the evidence supporting his guilt and the substantial legal review of Mr. Keith's conviction, many legitimate questions have been raised regarding the evidence in support of the conviction and the investigation which led to it.  In particular, Mr. Keith's conviction relied upon the linking of certain eyewitness testimony with certain forensic evidence about which important questions have been raised.  I also find the absence of a full investigation of other credible suspects troubling.

"Clearly, the careful exercise of a governor's executive clemency authority is appropriate in a case like this one, given the real and unanswered questions surrounding the murders for which Mr. Keith was convicted. Mr. Keith still has appellate legal proceedings pending which, in theory, could ultimately result in his conviction being overturned altogether. But the pending legal proceedings may never result in a full reexamination of his case, including an investigation of alternate suspects, by law enforcement authorities and/or the courts. That would be unfortunate — this case is clearly one in which a full, fair analysis of all of the unanswered questions should be considered by a court. Under these circumstances, I cannot allow Mr. Keith to be executed.  I have decided, at this time, to commute Mr. Keith's sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Should further evidence justify my doing so, I am prepared to review this matter again for possible further action."

September 2, 2010 at 05:57 PM | Permalink


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"Strickland, a Democrat seeking re-election this fall..."

It's always interesting how the media likes to intertwine capital cases and politics.

Does anybody know if the Columbus Dispatch is a Republican or Democrat leaning paper? My instinct (or my inner cynic) tells me it leans Republican.

Posted by: Robert | Sep 2, 2010 6:45:42 PM

I don't know how Strickland can reconcile the difference between Getsy and Keith. Strickland has concluded that Keith has a chance to overturn his conviction in the courts with new evidence. I doubt it. Most likely did it, but the police didn't look for other suspects? Also sounds like he wants to grant a pardon in the future. What a slap in the face to the Ohio Parole Board, the surviving victims and the deceased ones. Citizens of Ohio you better remove Strickland from office or he will grant Romell Broom a commutation also. I realize the tough decisions on these cases, but rejecting a unanimous, well written recommendation the Parole Board submitted is outrageous. I take back the post that I did a few months ago complimenting Strickland on an admirable job on clemency issues.

Posted by: DaveP | Sep 2, 2010 7:02:10 PM

I was behind the Neilds clemency. I didn't like it, an obviously guilty murderer walking off death row, but I understood the problem with executing a man after a trial where a medical expert was either incompetent or lied on the stand.
This is different. Not only are his crimes far more severe but he lacks even a trace of remorse. As for his claims of innocence, all you have to do to put them to rest is read the clemency report. The board rejected his claims because of the strength of the evidence against him: ballistics, eye witnesses and physical evidence tying the vehicle he drove to the scene. They put a lot more thought than Strickland.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Sep 2, 2010 8:22:05 PM

I believe one of the Ohio Parole Board members said Keith was smiling or laughing at the victims relatives. Strickland really blew this one. Ohio should change the statute to stop these arbitrary clemency decisions. I have no problem with the Governors or parole boards commutations when the evidence warrants it, but Keith killed 3 people. I think Strickland's statement is pure nonsense.

Posted by: DaveP | Sep 2, 2010 8:45:47 PM

Strickland is a Democrat. Thus, he will help a criminal when he can. Remember, this oily scum took office yapping about the death penalty, and now, he hides behind the skirts of "well, gee, there are questions". Well, there really aren't. The eyewitness had Keith identified to him before he was shot. Thus, it was not a situation where the witness was called upon to identify someone simply on facial recognition.

Strickland spit on the victims' families and the survivors. Keith is obviously guilty, and Strickland gave him a pass. Once again, who is surprised, after all, he's a Democrat.

Posted by: federalist | Sep 2, 2010 9:56:42 PM

The truest thing I have ever heard about the death penalty is that "capital punishment is as much a part of the political system as it is a part of the criminal justice system."

Thirteen years ago I represented an African American defendant who was on death row and his execution date was set. A few weeks later, with no request from me or any explanation given, the date for his death was changed to a couple weeks later. I couldn't figure out why. Finally, it dawned on me that his original date fell on Martin Luther King's birthday. It would have been politically embarrassing for the first black def to be executed since reinstatement of capital punishment following Furman, to have taken place on Martin Luther King's birthday.

Anyone who rejects the notion that politics is "intertwined" with capital punishment is blind to reality.

bruce cunningham

Posted by: bruce cunningham | Sep 3, 2010 3:16:06 AM

Good point. We are all surprised here in FL that Gov Crist has whimped out on the death penalty after being an aggressive atty general. After Baze was released, he said he was "grateful" to the Supreme Court. He has only signed 5 death warrants in 4 years. As soon as he decided to run for US Senate, he cut back significantly signing warrants. One would think he would want us to think he was tough on crime and follow through. Or he thought he would get bad publicity from the press like they did to former Gov Bush in Texas. Who knows?

Posted by: DaveP | Sep 3, 2010 6:29:45 AM


Your instinct is right...the Dispatch significantly leans Republican (I won't even say "conservative"--because it's pro-Republican even when Republicans aren't acting conservatively). The head of the paper (who I believe is now Mike Wolff--it's always been in the Wolff family) is a large Republican donor, and he deliberately lets his politics seep into the Dispatch editorial pages.

Posted by: Res ipsa | Sep 3, 2010 8:58:20 AM

Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error, error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.
Gov Ryan

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Sep 3, 2010 3:36:46 PM

claudio --

Did Gov. Ryan say that before or after he finished his sentence for selling his office?

I must say, Ryan is no dope. He knew at the time he emptied death row that there was a good chance his corruption would catch up to him, and that he would one day be among the prison population. Having previously been the state attorney general, he figured that he might have, shall we say, an unpleasant stay in the slammer.

What's a crooked governor to do??? No problem. Clear out death row, thus becoming a hero to the prison population rather than Target No. 1. Instead of being the foremost prison punching bag, he became the foremost giver of autographs!!!

The guy is no dope, I tell you. But I might look elsewhere for my death penalty jurisprudence.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 3, 2010 10:45:50 PM


Gov. Ryan blanket clemency is backed up by consistent scandals in many death row cases during his tenure as governor. It is only incidental that he knew he would be incarcerated.

Furthermore he knew he was going to be incarcerated in a federal institution though his clemency is only applicable to Illinois death row inmates. But even if his "rep" carried forward to the federal system, it wouldn't carry much weight. I don't think the general prison population cares much for the death row population.

Posted by: Robert | Sep 4, 2010 4:02:25 AM

James Ryan was Illinois Atty general 1995-2003, not George Ryan. The governor was a pharmacist before he took office.

Posted by: DaveP | Sep 4, 2010 9:04:01 AM

does someone read the Chicago Tribune or I am alone ??????

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Sep 4, 2010 12:37:08 PM

"Strickland is a Democrat. Thus, he will help a criminal when he can."

Lol. Don't hurt yourself with that kneejerk.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 4, 2010 1:54:37 PM

Dave P --

You are partly right. Ryan was a pharmacist by training, but had been in public office for 16 years before he became governor. He was Lt. Gov. from 1983-1991 and Secretary of State from 1991-1999, when he became Governor. But he was not Attorney General, and I thank you for the correction.

Robert --

Blanket clemency is like blanket anything else -- certain to be overbroad. And I think you are naive in believing that Ryan did not become a prison hero -- state or federal -- as The Man Who Emptied Death Row.

In addition, the non-death row population has a great deal in common with the death row population, namely -- to hear them tell it -- they're all innocent and are in prison only because of corrupt prosecutors, the Fascist War Machine, etc. Just read the comments on this blog if you want a window into the kind of thinking that goes on.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 5, 2010 12:36:37 AM

thanks for the thorough clarification. Ryan was a disgrace. Has the Illinois legislature done anything since this to make sure it never happens again? In Florida, the Governor needs at least 2 cabinet members as well as his own vote to commute a sentence. It hasn't happened in years in a death case. I believe 13 inmates have died of natural causes compared to 5 executions since Crist took office here 4 years ago.

Posted by: DaveP | Sep 5, 2010 9:35:51 AM

He claims innocence but is also supposed to be remorseful? If there is enough doubt to commute (to a cushy LWOP) how is the heinous nature of the crime relevant? Does reasonable doubt also become softer if the accused doesn't appear remorseful or the crime is particularly heinous? As to rejecting the board, yes, the governor is given independent judgment in such cases. That means sometimes the governor will make a different call. As to politics, in some other case, a murderer was quite likely to be negatively affected. This includes -- see Bill Clinton -- when the governor is a Democrat.

He might have blew the call. I can't judge that w/o seeing more info.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 6, 2010 9:14:35 AM

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