ACLU Objects to Ohio Proposal to Deny Condemned Prisoners Their Final Words

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
January 5, 2000 12:00 am

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COLUMBUS, OH — Saying that condemned prisoners should have the right to offer their last words, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio today objected to a proposal that would allow wardens to edit or completely suppress final statements.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, ACLU of Ohio Legal Director Raymond Vasvari objected to Senate Bill 175, introduced by Senate Eugene Watts. The proposed legislation would codify an existing prison regulation governing how prisoners may make last words and make it into state law.

Under existing prison regulations, condemned prisoners are permitted to write their “last words” before being executed. Prison wardens, however, are then given the option of reading all, some or none of the prisoner’s statement after the execution has occurred.

The ACLU of Ohio maintains that such unbridled discretion amounts to a violation of prisoners’ free speech rights and has filed a federal lawsuit over the related prison regulation in July 1999. The case is titled Treesh v. Taft and is currently pending in the U.S. District Court here.

“For nearly 800 years, Anglo-American law has recognized the right of a condemned man to speak his last words in the moments before execution free of editorial control,” Vasvari said.

“Indeed, of all the rights now protected by the First Amendment this is the oldest, pre-dating freedom of the press by almost 400 years,” Vasvari added. “It would be tragic if the Ohio Senate chose to open the millenium by being the first Anglo-American legislative body in history to trample on this ancient right.”

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