By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS
AP Legal Affairs Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A federal judge who has skewered Ohio in the past over the way it carries out executions heaped unusually warm praise on the system and the state prisons director in a recent ruling.
The comments by U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost raise the possibility that successful challenges focusing on the process of putting inmates to death in Ohio could be coming to an end.Frost has delayed executions over such challenges, though he has also let some proceed when it appeared the state had fixed problems.
Frost's most recent ruling last week declined to stop the execution of Brett Hartman, scheduled to die Tuesday for stabbing an Akron woman to death in 1997.
The ruling doesn't mean that possible future problems carrying out executions couldn't create a new set of challenges. Though Ohio executions generally go as smoothly as such procedures can, it has had some notable exceptions.
The most infamous of those was the botched attempt in 2009 to execute Rommel Broom, whose execution was halted after two hours during which time he was unsuccessfully jabbed with IV needles 18 times. Broom is back on death row fighting a second attempt to put him to death. He was only the second person in U.S. history whose execution was halted.
Also looming over the state: the expiration next year of its execution drug supply. New lawsuits will inevitably follow any attempt to switch to a new drug.
In his Nov. 5 ruling, Frost said that prisons director Gary Mohr has created a command system with himself as the lead enforcer that finally seems able to stop major changes to the state's written execution policy.
"Mohr in particular warrants credit for demonstrating significant, continuing leadership in this new approach," Frost wrote. "More than one witness testified that Mohr's increased management of the execution process represents a sea change in director involvement."
At another point, Frost said that everyone at the April 18 execution of Mark Wiles seemed to understand that there can be no deviations from policy, and any potential changes must go up the chain of command to Mohr.
Contrast that with Frost's comments in July 2011 that stopped the execution of Kenneth Smith: "It is the policy of the state of Ohio that the state follows its written execution protocol, except when it does not. This is nonsense."
Or his comment from a January ruling that halted the execution of Charles Lorraine: "Ohio has been in a dubious cycle of defending often indefensible conduct, subsequently reforming its protocol when called on that conduct, and then failing to follow through on its own reforms."
Frost, appointed to the federal bench in 2003 by President George W. Bush, was out of the office and not available for comment.
Federal public defender Allen Bohnert said he doesn't believe Frost is shifting positions. He said Frost's comments relate to what the judge has called the current "factual landscape," which the judge has noted can change from execution to execution.
"If the State engages in additional misconduct, I have no doubt Judge Frost will hold the responsible parties accountable, just as he has before," Bohnert said.
Mohr declined to comment because the issue involves ongoing litigation.
The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is "pleased the court recognizes the hard work of the execution team members," spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said in a statement. "We remain committed to carrying out this profound responsibility in a dignified, professional and constitutional manner."
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached at http://twitter.com/awhcolumbus .