One of the horrible blessings bestowed on many governors is the occasional duty to play God, one life at a time.

In Ohio, for the 28th time in less than four years, Gov. Ted Strickland must decide: Shall a man live? Or shall he die?

This time, the man’s name is Kevin Keith.

Chances are, no matter where you live in America, you’ve heard about Keith. A lot of people, including a bipartisan list of 31 former judges and prosecutors across the country, have called for clemency in this case riddled with missteps and shortcuts on the road to justice.

Keith was convicted and sentenced to death in 1994 for a shooting spree in Bucyrus, Ohio, that killed three people, including a 4-year-old child, and wounded three others, including a 6-year-old girl. Keith has insisted he is innocent. Last week, the Ohio Parole Board voted unanimously to deny clemency.

His execution is scheduled for Sept. 15. Gov. Strickland must decide by 9:59 that morning whether he will grant a reprieve. But there is no need to wait until then to do the right thing. Doubts hover over Keith’s murder conviction like low storm clouds ready to burst.

The primary evidence against Keith was eyewitness testimony, which numerous studies — and hundreds of exonerations — have shown to be the least reliable. The Innocence Project, which works to free those imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, says that eyewitness misidentification played a role in more than 75 percent of the 258 convictions overturned through DNA testing.

Gov. Strickland, who already has said publicly that Keith’s case “has circumstances that” he finds “troubling,” said in a phone interview last week that eyewitness testimony is often deeply flawed.

“As a psychologist, I know that eyewitness testimony tends to be among the least credible,” he said, “and yet it also tends to be the most powerful in its impact on a jury. We’ve already seen cases in Ohio and across the country where people were exonerated after being convicted primarily on eyewitness testimony.”

There are numerous other reasons to believe that Kevin Keith is innocent, including the discovery of new evidence, police missteps, the existence of another known suspect and lousy defense work during Keith’s trial. But it is clear that prosecutors not only do not care whether Keith is innocent but also are deeply invested in winning at all costs.

Consider, for example, how the state, in a written argument to the parole board, altered 6-year-old Quanita Reeves’ response after police showed her a six-photo lineup in which Keith’s photo stands out. It is so dark that features are difficult to discern; his face is larger than the others’, and he is the only one who is bald.

“Quanita pointed to photo number five, Keith, and stated it ‘looks like him’ but the man she saw did not have a ‘bump on his head.'”

According to a transcript of that taped interview provided by the attorney general’s office, here’s what Quanita really said: “But that looks like him  but that not him though.” The italicized part is what the state deleted.

Quanita also said, repeatedly, that the guy who shot her did not have a lump on his head like the one visible on the top of Keith’s. (Today Quanita says Keith was her shooter.)

I asked Ted Hart, spokesman for the Ohio attorney general, why the state altered Quanita’s statement. His initial response, via e-mail: “We quoted from the interview transcript and also provided the entire transcript for context.”

When I pressed him about altering her quote for the written argument, he responded: “The quote was not altered. It was summarized.”

Such a brazen attempt to manipulate witness testimony and then wiggle out of owning it casts a tall shadow on prosecutors’ credibility.

To quote Gov. Strickland: “If that happened, it is terribly, terribly disturbing.”

A lot of people are praying that justice will prevail for Keith, but his earthly fate rests in the hands of just one man. Only Gov. Strickland can do the right thing.

Serious questions remain in this case.

Where there is doubt, there must be mercy.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine.


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