Ohio Death Row Inmate Chooses Electric Chair Over Lethal Injection

John W. Byrd Jr. says he'd rather go to the electric chair than be executed by injection for a fatal stabbing that his attorneys maintain was committed by an accomplice.

Byrd plans to choose the chair to illustrate the brutality of capital punishment, but the decision to carry out an execution in this unusual case rests in the hands of the state Parole Board and Gov. Bob Taft.

Byrd's lawyers have asked the board to recommend that Taft commute the sentence to life in prison. The board is expected to make its recommendation to Taft on Friday.

"What his attitude has been, if they're going to execute him, he should make it as difficult as he possibly can," public defender David Bodiker said Monday. "He's not going to go quietly into the night."

Byrd, 37, is scheduled to be executed on Sept. 12, in what could be Ohio's first electrocution and third execution since 1963. In Ohio, where 202 men are on death row, inmates may choose between lethal injection and the electric chair.

Byrd's attorneys acknowledge their client took part in the 1983 robbery, but they maintain an accomplice fatally stabbed convenience store clerk Monte Tewksbury. Byrd has declined requests for an interview and was not at Monday's hearing.

Tewksbury's widow, Sharon Tewksbury, 57, called Byrd a coward and asked the board to allow the execution to proceed. Her husband, who was 40 when he died, had been moonlighting from his regular job at Procter & Gamble Co. to earn extra money for his daughter's education.

Byrd "invaded our world, our peaceful existence and began for us a nightmare that has not ended," the widow said.

Tewksbury's daughter Kimberly, 37, said: "John Byrd has had 18 years to beg for his pathetic life. My dad had maybe 18 minutes."

Byrd's attorneys say that under state law, he cannot be executed because he wasn't the principal offender. The maximum sentence an accomplice in the case could have received would have been life in prison.

Richard Vickers, an assistant public defender, told the Parole Board that he took a statement in 1989 in which the accomplice, John Brewer, admitted to the stabbing.

Byrd's attorneys made the document public in January, and Vickers said Monday he had intended to use the document during the clemency process.

"I made a mistake, but it was not because I didn't think Brewer was credible," Vickers said. "It was a decision I made. It was wrong, but blame me, don't blame John Byrd."

Prosecutor Michael Allen called Brewer's testimony "absolutely and patently absurd." Prosecutors have said Brewer changed his initial story of not being involved to save Byrd from execution.

Brewer was convicted as an accomplice and could not legally be tried again, prosecutors say. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Parole board member William Hudson said the timing affects the document's credibility.

"A person has to wonder," he said.

Such strategies are not uncommon in death penalty cases, especially when defense lawyers know the evidence might not withstand normal court processes such as cross examination, said Christo Lassiter, a University of Cincinnati law professor who is not involved in the case.

The most important reason for holding back such evidence "is the desire to have a new basis for last-minute, 11th-hour successive appeals," said Lassiter.

Last month, Ohio prisons Director Reginald Wilkinson urged the state to retire the 105-year-old electric chair, saying malfunctions could be too stressful for prison staff members.

The Legislature does not return from recess until after Sept. 3, thus making it unlikely any legislation abolishing electrocution would pass before Sept. 12.

"I would hate to see us get bogged down with what is more humane, the electric chair or lethal injection or hanging or the guillotine, that's the not real issue," said James Tobin of Ohioans to Stop Executions and the Catholic Conference of Ohio.