COLUMBUS, Ohio – Gov. John Kasich on Wednesday spared a condemned killer, saying he had no doubt the man was involved in a double killing but that the details of his participation were "frustratingly unclear."
Shawn Hawkins is the first death row inmate to receive mercy from Kasich since the Republican took office in January, and the seventh to be spared since Ohio resumed executions in 1999. He had been slated to be executed next week but instead will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Attorneys for Hawkins had raised questions about evidence that sent him to death row, and the Ohio Parole Board recommended last month that Kasich spare Hawkins.
Hawkins' attorney Anthony Covatta said Wednesday that Hawkins and his family were "grateful to Gov. Kasich for his wise and merciful decision in sparing Shawn from the sentence of death."
Kasich said there was no doubt Hawkins played "a significant, material role" in the 1989 slayings of 18-year-old Terrance Richard and 19-year-old Diamond Marteen, whose bodies were discovered in Mount Healthy in suburban Cincinnati after apparently having been moved there from another location.
"Precise details of that role are frustratingly unclear to the point that Ohio shouldn't deliver the ultimate penalty in this case," Kasich said in a statement. "Therefore, I am ordering that he spend the rest of his life in prison and have no chance of ever getting out."
Kasich then touched on a significant tragedy in his own life, the 1987 death of his parents in a car crash.
"As someone who has experienced sudden and tragic loss, I know the pain that comes with losing loved ones," the governor said.
Kasich declined further comment at a Statehouse event later Wednesday.
Asked about Hawkins and clemency at a news conference last month, Kasich said he was taking a close look at the case and added, "I believe there is considerable doubt." He also said Ohio would not "go forward with an execution where we are not certain."
In its May 12 decision, the parole board said it was bothered by several aspects of the case, including the possible involvement of other individuals who hadn't been fully investigated.
The board also cited conflicting statements by the sole eyewitness to the slayings and pointed out even police didn't believe the crime occurred as the witness described.
The board also said it was troubled that Hawkins' original attorney never presented evidence to the jury to argue against a death sentence but instead "chastised and alienated" the jury.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said in a statement he had the greatest respect for Kasich and the difficult decision he had to make.
"Governors in Ohio are elected to exercise their judgment in situations such as this," said Deters, a fellow Republican. "This case clearly bothered him. I join with Gov. Kasich in hoping that the families of Diamond Marteen and Terrance Richard may find peace."
Hawkins, 43, had enlisted unusual support for his cause: state Sen. Bill Seitz and Ken Blackwell, Ohio's former secretary of state, are both well-known Cincinnati conservatives and prominent proponents of capital punishment who said Hawkins should be spared.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached at http://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.