A lawsuit has been filed in Ohio alleging that the state’s parole board has an unwritten policy of denying parole to inmates who were formerly on death row.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center filed the claim last week on behalf of two long-time inmates, Patricia Wernert and George Clayton.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Ohio’s death penalty legislation in 1978 and the prisoners on death row at the time were subsequently re-sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. However, the lawsuit alleges that the Ohio Parole Board has a practice of denying parole to these inmates, which has been in place since at least 2016.
According to the lawsuit, the parole denials are issued “regardless of any other factors or individual circumstances, including but not limited to demonstrated rehabilitative progress, lack of threat to the community, reentry plan, time served, age, or prosecutor recommendations.”
Wernert, 78, and Clayton, 64, have each served 45 years in prison and both have been denied parole numerous times, the lawsuit states.
Wernert, who was originally sentenced to death for two counts of aggravated murder, was re-sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 20 years in 1978.
Prosecutors said she and her husband had hired a man, Richard Arterberry, to kill her mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law. All three were convicted. But the lawsuit cites a 2015 affidavit from Arterberry, which states that he believed Wernert was not aware of the murder plot.
The lawsuit also points out that she has maintained an “exemplary” record throughout her years behind bars and “has a viable reentry plan,” yet was denied parole at a hearing in March.
Her next parole hearing is set for February 2026. By that time, she will be 83 and will have spent 50 years in prison.
Clayton was re-sentenced to life with parole eligibility after 20 years, after being convicted of one count of aggravated murder and seven counts of aggravated robbery. During the 1975 robbery, a plainclothes detective was shot and killed was shot by one of his co-defendants. Clayton turned himself in after learning the victim’s identity, the lawsuit points out, and was the only one of the four co-defendants who did so.
His record has been exemplary since 2005 and he also has a viable reentry plan, according to the suit, but was denied parole in June 2020. His next hearing is in May 2025, by which point he will have served 49 years.
The lawsuit argues that the parole board’s “current practice is consistently to deny parole to any individual who was once under a death sentence,” in violation of principles of Ohio law that inmates eligible for parole must receive “meaningful consideration.”
Ohio still has the death penalty, but executions have been indefinitely suspended by Governor Mike DeWine. The state last executed a prisoner in 2018.
David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, said the parole board had “decided to never release people like Pat Wernert and George Clayton, who would have long been released but for its policy.”
He added: “Ms. Wernert and Mr. Clayton deserve meaningful consideration for parole and this lawsuit is their last chance to obtain it.”
David Carey, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, said the board was essentially converting their sentences to life without the possibility of parole.
The lawsuit, filed in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, asks for a judgment declaring that the plaintiffs are entitled to a new hearing.
“The Parole Board adheres to this blind practice regardless of whether the individual is actually suitable for parole,” Carey said.
“Our clients have demonstrated immense rehabilitative progress, pose no threat to the community, have each served four-and-a-half decades in prison, and have strong reentry plans. Even their trial prosecutors do not oppose their release. But under this policy, none of that matters. All they ask is for what the law requires: a fair hearing.”
A spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said it did not comment on pending litigation.
Update 8/5/21, 11 a.m. ET: This article was updated with a comment from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
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