COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio's first execution in six months can proceed, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, saying the state had narrowly demonstrated it was serious about following its own lethal injection procedures.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost ends an unofficial moratorium dating to November, when members of the state execution team deviated from the official injection procedures when putting a Cleveland man to death.
The changes were minor – failing to properly check a box on a medical form, for example – but they angered Frost, who had previously criticized the state for failing to follow its rules.
The judge's decision followed a seven-day trial over the state's lethal injection process last month.
The ruling paves the way for the April 18 execution of Mark Wiles for stabbing a 15-year-old boy to death during a farmhouse burglary.
Frost said Wednesday he is "admittedly skeptical" about Ohio's ability to carry the execution out properly but said he's ruling in favor of the state, while warning officials to get it right.
"A past pattern of consistent inconsistency does not invariably mean that Ohio can never get its act together," Frost wrote. "The factual landscape can always change, both for the better and for the worse. Wiles has failed to preclude the conclusion that the former scenario applies here."
One of Wiles' attorneys, federal public defender Allen Bohnert, lamented the judge's decision.
"While we respect Judge Frost's command of the evidence and the legal issues involved, we are disappointed with the ultimate ruling that the evidence came up `just short' of showing that Ohio cannot be trusted to do what it says it will do," he said in an emailed statement. "It is a sad day for our state when a man may be required to die to demonstrate again that Ohio cannot be trusted to follow the law."
He said he couldn't immediately say whether he would appeal.
In July, Frost scolded the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for what he called haphazard and embarrassing deviations to its own rules. In response, Ohio rewrote its policies and said it would follow them in the future. With those changes in place, Frost allowed the execution of Reginald Brooks in November for killing his three sons in 1982.
Following that execution, Frost again said the state hadn't followed its rules. He criticized Ohio for switching the official whose job it is to announce the start and finish times of the lethal injection and failing to properly document that the inmate's medical chart was reviewed.
Ohio argued the changes were minor deviations that didn't affect its ability to properly execute inmates.
The way Ohio puts inmates to death has been under scrutiny since 2009, when executioners tried unsuccessfully for nearly two hours to insert a needle into the veins of Romell Broom, sentenced to die for raping and killing a 14-year-old Cleveland girl. Then-Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, eventually called the execution off, and Broom remains on death row, arguing in court filings that Ohio shouldn't be allowed a second try at executing him.
Frost has never found Ohio's execution process unconstitutional, meaning the delays have been based on technical questions about lethal injection.
Wiles, 49, had been out of prison on a previous aggravated robbery for less than a year on Aug. 7, 1985, when he killed Mark Klima, a straight-A student who wanted to be a doctor, in a Portage County farmhouse, according to Ohio Parole Board records.
Mark Klima, the son of Wiles' employers, was found by two girls who were staying at the farm, according to the parole board. The knife in his back had been used to cut a birthday cake the day before.
A report by the parole board also said Wiles had suffered a head injury in a bar 12 days before the slaying, and a doctor testified that tests indicate he may have an injury to part of the brain that regulates impulse control. Another doctor agreed that Wiles has a brain injury and said he also has a substance abuse problem and personality disorder.
The parole board ruled unanimously March 23 against mercy for Wiles, saying he exploited the family's kindness and his remorse didn't outweigh the brutality of the crime.
Wiles' defense team had argued he should be spared because he confessed to the crime, has shown extreme remorse and regret and has a good prison record.
Gov. John Kasich has the final say on mercy for Wiles.