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Abdul Awkal: Mentally Ill on Ohio’s Death Row

“I was drowning in the ocean with the hole in my boat till the Lord send me Mr. Singleton and his team to save me from certain death.”

—Abdul Awkal

As many of our supporters know, OJPC client Abdul Awkal narrowly escaped execution in the summer of 2012.  Mr. Awkal was originally a Constitutional Litigation Clinic client in a religious rights case challenging the prison’s refusal to provide Halal meals.  Through the relationship David and the Chase students built during Mr. Awkal’s civil suit, OJPC got involved in representing Mr. Awkal in his death penalty case.

David Singleton and Abdul Awkal working on Abdul’s case

In the summer of 2012, OJPC staff worked tirelessly to stop Ohio from executing Mr. Awkal.  David enlisted the assistance of Ngozi Ndulue, who had prior experience in defending death penalty cases, Jessica Hunter, Brittney Kreimer and Sheila Donaldson.  After a series of late nights and early mornings, the review of thousands of pages of records, and road trips across the state, OJPC successfully sought a reprieve from Governor Kasich.  This reprieve gave OJPC and Mr. Awkal’s court-appointed attorneys time to prove to a common pleas court that Mr. Awkal was mentally incompetent to be executed.  Following a three-day hearing, Mr. Awkal was found incompetent, and his execution was indefinitely stayed by the Ohio Supreme Court.  Mr. Awkal is the first person in Ohio to be found incompetent to be executed.

What, you may ask, does Mr. Awkal’s case have to do with the mission of the OJPC?  Well, the death penalty is one of the areas in which racial disparities in the criminal justice system are evident.  Study after study has shown that the race of the murder victim has an effect on who is sentenced to death.  Although a comprehensive study has yet to be conducted in Ohio, all preliminary studies point to this trend holding true in our state.   When mental illness is added to the picture, race remains a factor.  The lack of diagnosis of mental health issues in minority communities means that there will not be a record to support defenses based on mental illness or claims that a person is mentally incompetent to be executed.

OJPC continues to represent Mr. Awkal as the state appeals the common pleas court’s incompetency ruling.  OJPC’s advocacy has extended to statewide advocacy on the role of race and mental illness in the administration of Ohio’s death penalty.