ACLU Opposes Death Sentence for Mentally Ill Inmate, First Ohio Execution in 35 Years

February 11, 1999

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CLEVELAND--The American Civil Liberties Union today strongly urged Ohio's governor to commute the death sentence of Wilford Berry to a sentence of life imprisonment.

Berry is scheduled to be killed at 9:00 pm on February 19, 1999, at the Southeastern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. He would be the first person executed in Ohio since 1963.

In a letter sent to Governor Robert Taft, the ACLU said that Berry suffers from serious, lifelong mental illness and that his condition "was a significant factor not only in his involvement in the crime, but in his conduct and the decisions made during his trial."

Berry and Anthony Lozar were convicted of killing Charles Mitroff in December 1989. Unlike Mr. Berry, however, Mr. Lozar chose to mount a defense and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Berry has been suicidal since the age of nine and suffers from schizophreniform disorder and chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia, according to a number of doctors including court-appointed psychiatrists. He would not cooperate with authorities in his case unless he was assured that he would receive the death penalty. He asked the jury to sentence him to die and refused to work with his attorneys in their efforts to save his life.

"The fact that the first person the state of Ohio has chosen to execute in 35 years is a man who is clearly mentally ill only compounds the injustice of this case," said Diann Rust-Tierney, Director of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project. "The death penalty is never the answer, regardless of the tragic wish of someone who wants to be its next victim. The ACLU urges Governor Taft to commute this sentence and to keep Ohio from joining other states in this gruesome death march."

Berry's family had asked the court for a new evaluation of Berry's mental competence to waive the further appeals of his death sentence, but on January 29 that request was denied. The court's ruling was based on a belief that it did not have jurisdiction to rule in this matter, not on the merits of the case, the ACLU said.

On February 3, the Ohio parole board recommended against a commutation of Berry's death sentence, but that recommendation is not binding on the governor. Governor Taft has said that the parole board's recommendation is just one of the factors he will consider in his decision.

The ACLU of Ohio and other anti-death penalty groups will be holding nightly vigils up until the day of execution at the governor's mansion, and a special vigil near the Lucasville penitentiary on the evening of February 19. For more information, visit the website of Ohioans to Stop Executions at http://www.otse.org.

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