There are a few different ways I can write this.
I can make the focus Governor Ted and the chance he has, once again, to prove that he actually has some principles and might even follow them in the face of perceived political cost but that he almost surely doesn't actually have principles and won't actually follow them even if he does.
I can make the focus a quasi-legal analysis of the case and what we can take from the decision.
I can just rejoice and say Happy Birthday and hope that the good news turns out to have legs.
Or, of course, I can just natter around the edges of all those things.
We'll see how it goes.
The subject, by the way, is Richard Nields. In 1997, in Springfield Township (just outside Cincinnati) he killed his girlfriend, Patricia Newsome. He's on death row. The Supreme Court of Ohio has scheduled his murder for June 10.
Every person in Ohio facing an execution date has a hearing before the Parole Board (whether he wants one or not) which then makes a recommendation to Governor Ted. The Board can suggest he grant clemency or that he deny it. Commute the sentence, or allow the killing to go on. But it's just a recommendation. Ted can do what he wants.
The hearing for Richard Nields was held May 10. The Parole Board issued its report and recommendation today. By a 4-3 vote, it recommends that the Ted commute the sentence to LWOP. That's no bonus. As I've said repeatedly, it's death in prison. But it's something.
The question, of course, is what will happen.
This isn't an innocence case.
The majority claims to base its recommendation primarily on the undisputed evidence that the coroner who testified at the trial just made up conclusions that had no scientific or medical basis in order to "prove" that the Nields first beat Newsome and then returned some time later to be sure and kill her. The prosecutor hammered that "fact" to the jury. The judge relied on it. And it's bullshit. Beyond that, they think it's powerful that the 6th Circuit said this was barely a death case at all (though close enough to affirm the death sentence) and that Ohio Supreme Court Justice Pfeifer dissented from that court's affirming the death sentence.
In conclusion, members voting favorable are concerned about the medical evidence that has been called into question and not refuted by the State during their clemency presentation. Members also respect the dissent of Justice Pfeifer as well as the concern that the Justices [sic] of the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal had, in that the circumstances of this case just barely get Nields over the death threshold under Ohio law. For this reason, we believe that Nields' sentence should be commuted to that of life without the possibility of parole.
It is, perhaps, equally worth noting what the majority didn't find moving: the facts that Nields had brain damage, that he has always shown remorse, and that he has been something of a model prisoner.
The dissenters, on the other hand, look at the facts that Nields was eligible for death even if the coroner's testimony was worthless, that Nields didn't just pony up with a complete and thorough confession from the moment of the crime and still denies that he has and had a history of violence against women.
Given all of these facts, we do not believe that the outcome of the case would have been any different had the court and jury heard more reliable medical testimony. We also believe that the aggravating circumstances in this case make death the appropriate sentence.
So what does all that mean? I'm not sure it means anything much. It suggests, though, that the only thing that can sway a majority of the Board toward clemency is the likelihood that either the conviction or the death sentence was based on what is proved to be junk science (or maybe some hard and uncontroverted evidence of factual innocence).
That's of some use, perhaps, in tailoring a clemency petition and hearing.
But it is, of course, only part of the battle. There's still Governor Ted. I'm waiting to see. But I fear the worst.
In any event, good news for today, a breath of fresh air from the Board. And oh, like I said, a birthday present: A chance, some reason to hope.
Richard Nields turns 59 tomorrow.
May he live to see 60.