December 18, 2014

Elyria
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Death penalty no joke to judge

ELYRIA — Darth Vader won’t be making an appearance next week when county Common Pleas Judge James Burge holds hearings on the constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection process.

Burge angrily rebuffed defense attorney Jeff Gamso’s suggestion that the three members of the state’s execution team who administer the lethal drugs to condemned inmates hide their identities behind the three masks of the “Star Wars” villain he brought to court Thursday.

“There’s nothing funny here,” Burge said. “We’ve got two guys here who are counting on you to be serious, grown men.”

Gamso, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, had asked Burge to allow the three medically trained execution team members to testify during the hearings. The state has worked hard to keep the identities of all the team members a secret even after Burge ordered the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to turn over details of how the execution process is carried out.

Burge said he would allow the three team members to testify out of the courtroom if it was needed, but he said next week’s hearing would focus on the testimony of two experts who have reviewed the information turned over by the prison system.

Gamso later apologized for the comment about the masks, but Assistant Ohio Attorney General Steve Maher, didn’t accept it.

“The presentation by Mr. Gamso of three Darth Vader masks belies his comments,” Maher said.

Gamso’s request came after Assistant County Prosecutor Tony Cillo had laid out concerns that Burge, a former defense attorney, may already have formed an opinion on the death penalty.

Cillo quoted from numerous newspaper articles detailing Burge’s visits and conversations with his former client, James Filiaggi, who was executed last year for the 1994 murder of his wife.

Burge said he had visited Filiaggi and urged him to join a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the lethal injection process, but he said he did so at the request of Filiaggi’s mother.

“I told him I thought he owed it to his mother to join the lawsuit,” Burge said.

Burge also explained why he keeps a picture of Filiaggi in his office at the county Justice Center.

“Every time I look at the picture, it reminds me of the things I could have done that could have been outcome determinant and maybe made a difference,” Burge said.

Cillo also had questioned the discussions Burge and Gamso, who represented Filiaggi in some of his appeals, had while the two were in Lucasville for the execution last year.

Burge said he told Gamso to talk to attorneys for accused killers Ruben Rivera and Ronald McCloud, who are challenging the lethal injection process on the grounds that the three-drug cocktail used by Ohio and other states doesn’t offer a quick and painless death.

“I have never expressed my view on the constitutionality of the lethal injection process to Mr. Gamso or anyone else for that matter,” Burge said.

Kreig Brusnahan, one of Rivera’s attorneys, called Cillo’s concerns a “thinly veiled effort to get the judge to recuse himself.”

But Burge said he didn’t take it that way. The judge said Cillo made it clear he wanted to make sure Rivera and McCloud were aware of Burge’s history if it came up in a later appeal.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.