Executions were a small part of prison chief’s mission

Reginald Wilkinson was the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections during which time he oversaw more than two dozen executions. Doral Chenoweth III | Columbus Dispatch

Executions were a small part of prison chief’s mission

As director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction from 1991 to 2006, Reginald Wilkinson carried out 20 executions. Despite opposing the death penalty personally, he endured the task in order to achieve his greater mission of helping inmates become better citizens upon their release.

The condemned man is strapped down on a gurney waiting for the lethal drugs to flow through his veins as Reginald “Reggie” Wilkinson prepares to give the order for him to die.

Wilkinson is standing in a private room next to the death chamber with a partial view of families of both the victim and the convicted murderer when he orders the anonymous executioner to push the button starting the lethal injection.

Then he is on the phone with the Ohio governor, providing a second-by-second description of the scene until the man’s heart stops and he is officially pronounced dead.

This happened 20 times under Wilkinson’s watch.

He was the one responsible for making sure they died.

As director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, a job he took in 1991, it was his job to carry out state executions — even though he personally opposes the death penalty.

But for him, it was worth enduring the executions to take on the challenges of the rest of his job: improving a correction system with 50,000 inmates and helping them become better citizens upon their release.

“People would often ask me, ‘How can you do that job?’ And I would tell them I had a greater mission than executions: to create new citizens, help public safety and make real change,” Wilkinson said.

And, as he explained, “I didn’t view it as I was responsible for their deaths. I am not the jury or judge.”

Video by Doral Chenoweth III

Wilkinson, 69, who was born in Detroit, went to high school in Cleveland and earned two degrees from Ohio State University, a bachelor’s degree in political science and a masters in higher education administration. He also earned a doctorate degree in education from the University of Cincinnati.

He never planned on running a statewide prison system, let alone overseeing executions. His dream was to become a university president and work in higher education until a chance encounter in a local park changed his destiny.

He was working as a photographer taking pictures at a local festival and struck up a conversation with a woman who was impressed with his intellect and the fact that he had a masters degree. She handed him a business card for the department of corrections.

His first job for the department was in 1973 as coordinator of volunteer services for the prison in Lebanon, Ohio. About 18 years later, after working as a warden and in other positions, he was made director of the corrections system by then governor George Voinovich.

But it was then-lieutenant governor (and current governor) Mike DeWine who recognized Wilkinson’s talents and recommended him for the position.

Executions started for Wilkinson about eight years later when Wilford Lee Berry, known as “The Volunteer,” waived his right to appeal his death sentence. Berry’s case received national attention and he was executed by lethal injection in February 1999, making him the first person killed by the state in 36 years.

Wilkinson said he isn’t haunted by Berry’s death — or the other 19 men he watched die. He doesn’t lie awake at night with guilt or wish he had taken a different career path.

“I was robotic, not nervous or emotional during the executions,” he said. “I had a job to do, and that was my mindset.”

State correctional head Reginald Wilkinson, left, and Southern Ohio Correctional Facility director Terry Collins look over the death house at the Lucasville prison in 1994. Wilkinson helped abolish the use of the electric chair, which was not used during any of the 20 executions over which he presided. File photo | Columbus Dispatch

The formula, Wilkinson said, was to not humanize the executions. He didn’t read the files of those scheduled to die because learning about the crimes they committed might have made him angry or resentful.

When he met with condemned inmates shortly before the executions, it would be for only five to 10 minutes. He would usually go with a spiritual adviser and ask the men if they needed anything for comfort or peace of mind.

Wilkinson doesn’t recall any of the men being hostile or angry at him.

“I didn’t want to personalize things or judge them,” Wilkinson said.

“I never wondered whether someone was innocent or not because that was the job of the criminal justice system for years in those cases. I just tried to stay even-keeled and do my job the way any professional would.”

The harder conversations for Wilkinson were with the families of both the victim and the inmate.

“I did feel for the families on both sides,” he said. “Those meetings were more difficult.”

He felt sadness for all the family members in what were somber, sometimes emotional discussions that never included details about the crime. He would treat the families like a social worker to provide comfort and do whatever he could to put them at ease.

The worst moments at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, the site of the death chamber, would come in executions where Wilkinson wasn’t sure whether the order would be carried out.

There were times just minutes before the scheduled execution at midnight when Wilkinson would get a call saying the Ohio Supreme Court was stopping it or giving the order to proceed.

The executions would eventually be held during daytime hours to avoid the high drama that raised tensions for everyone involved.

Wilkinson, who lives in Victorian Village, has been asked countless times by those who know his past what it was like to not only be responsible for the deaths but also watch 20 people die.

“I never wondered whether someone was innocent or not because that was the job of the criminal justice system for years in those cases. I just tried to stay even-keeled and do my job the way any professional would.”

Reginald Wilkinson
Former Ohio Department of Correction director

“It looked like putting a person to sleep,” he said. “There was no visible signs of injury to the body. It wasn’t a car accident or things people associate with someone being killed. I had no guilty feelings about it. I was doing my job.”

About six months after he retired in 2006, Wilkinson publicly revealed he had long been opposed to the death penalty during an interview with a Dayton reporter. His admission revealed the irony of how his personal views might have collided with the part of his job that got the most attention.

Wilkinson said he is opposed to capital punishment globally, and his views come more from an academic perspective than being an activist working to end executions.

“I think we as a society can devise a system that is better than the one we have been using,” Wilkinson said. “I was always against capital punishment. But, again, I thought the bigger goal of reforming a system to produce better citizens was worth carrying out a part of the job I disagreed with.”

He has never allowed the executions to define his career or his professional legacy.

“Making people better prepared for life when they walked out of one of our institutions … that was the bigger cause,” he said. “I divested myself from personal feelings. Maybe I was too stoic for some people? But when I went home, there were no regrets.”