Readers "On the Same Page" in Cincinnati are discussing William Gaines A Lesson Before Dying in a community wide effort to improve racial understanding. The author will visit during the week Cincinnati¹s notorious serial killer, Alton Coleman, has an April 26 execution date.

Gaines' novel tells the story of a black southerner sentenced to death by an all white jury for a killing committed by two other men. In closing argument to the jury, defense counsel characterized his client as a "hog." Gaines poignantly describes the death row inmate's struggle to recover his humanity and to face execution with dignity.

As a black defendant, Alton Coleman faced similar racial bias in Hamilton County¹s criminal justice system. The prosecutors used nine of their twelve peremptory challenges to exclude prospective black jurors, and only two African Americans were included on the trial panel.

Alton Coleman is a madman, not a hog; Ohio should not execute him like a wild animal. Coleman and codefendant Debra Brown went on a multi-state killing spree that resulted in a series of indescribably bloody murders. Even if such evil killers were sane, no other government in Western Civilization would execute for those crimes.

Psychiatrists have identified ample evidence of Coleman¹s mental illness following head injuries suffered in a childhood accident as well as physical and sexual abuse. Coleman refused to cooperate with trial counsel, and none of that mitigating evidence was presented to the sentencing juries. As a result, in one Cincinnati case an appeals court ordered a new trial.

In a second appeal raising the same issue, his death penalty was upheld and the execution date set, even though Debra Brown has confessed that she, not Coleman, was solely responsible for that murder.

Unlike Ohio¹s Governor Robert Taft, Russian President Vladimir Putin has opposed popular appeals that his government reinstitute capital punishment. Since 1999 this state¹s chief executive has approved three executions, despite compelling evidence of mental illness in the cases of Wilford Berry and J.D. Scott, and substantial doubts about the actual guilt of John Byrd.

All the world¹s liberal democracies except the U.S. refuse to dehumanize murderers and bar the execution of even the most vicious killers. When will Ohio¹s governor, lawmakers and voters heed the powerful objections to capital punishment voiced by the American Bar Association, mental health professionals, most of the major religious denominations, and compelling witnesses like Sister Helen Prejean and William Gaines?

Howard Tolley, Jr.
Professor of Political Science
University of Cincinnati