Early in the morning on January 27, 1992, the body of Melissa Anne Herstrum was found partially frozen to the ground on the campus of the University of Toledo. She was a 19-year-old nursing student at the University. She had been shot 14 times. Her wrists were abraded. Her clothes were partially removed.
That day or maybe the next (I'm doing this mostly from memory), the lead editorial in the Toledo Blade (self-described as "One of America's Great Newspapers," which comes closer to being true with every newspaper that folds) called for the execution of whoever might have killed her. Although police did not have a suspect at that point, the Blade opined that an insanity defense would be inappropriate. Next to the editorial was the day's political cartoon: A drawing of an electric chair. The caption:
This seat reserved for Melissa Anne Herstrum’s killer.
It's rumored that the cartoon was ordered by the publisher, who (it's also rumored) wrote the editorial himself.
A few days later, Jeffrey Hodge, a UT campus cop, one of the two who first discovered Herstrum's body, was arrested for the murder. Some 16 months later, as part of a plea bargain that took the death penalty off the table, Hodge conceded in court that he'd killed her. The Blade was livid.
How dare the prosecutor take death off the table? How dare the judge allow Hodge to plead to anything less than death? How dare?
For years, the Blade took every opportunity to publish Herstrum's picture and to excoriate the county prosecutor and, especially, the judge (Judy Lanzinger, now Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger) for the deal. Jeffrey Hodge should have been executed. The Blade was certain.
Hodge was but the most extreme example. The Blade (unlike it's sister paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) has long been a consistent and enthusiastic supporter of the death penalty. Also of fair trials, I should add. The paper's editorial position was clear.
Give 'em the resources they need. Give 'em a fair trial. Then convict 'em and kill them ASAP. Hang 'em high. And don't worry about the niceties.
And yet, this morning, there was this.
Lurking in the background of these changes in the method of execution are growing concerns that Ohio's death penalty is not applied fairly. Credible studies show that in Ohio, where a capital crime is committed and the race of the offender play a large role in whether prosecutors seek the death penalty.
African-American males accused of a capital offense are much more likely than white males or women of any race to be sentenced to death in Ohio. Alternately, some Ohio counties, largely because of political and economic factors, are less likely than others to seek the death penalty rather than life sentences in prison.
Because of these disparities, the worst offenders often are not on death row. Instead, the residents of Ohio's "Green Mile" are greatly determined by race, money, and geography.
That's the lead editorial in today's paper. It goes on to cite the concerns expressed in the last couple of weeks by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer and former Director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections Terry Collins.
OK, the Blade hasn't completely come around.
Justice Pfeifer's suggestion that Ohio eliminate the death penalty goes too far.
But it does seem to call for a moratorium.
It is reasonable to ask whether Ohio has applied the ultimate penalty fairly and enforced it humanely. If the answer is no, as it appears to be, then the time to debate how to improve the system is now, before anyone else is executed.
From the Blade, that's a sea change.