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Death penalty expert weighs in

Jessica Cuffman • Nov 14, 2013 at 10:40 AM

As rapist and killer Curtis Clinton learns his official sentence today in Erie County Common Pleas Judge Tygh Tone’s court, in the audience will be death row researcher and Sanduskian Bill Kimberlin.

The professor at Lorain County Community College observed parts of Clinton’s trial.

Watch the sentencing live at sanduskyregister.com at 1:30 p.m. today

As a psychologist, Kimberlin has been researching the lives of death row inmates for about seven years as he works on two books about the psyche of people living on death row and knowing the date of one’s death.

Most of his interview subjects have been through the majority of their appeals, and they reach out to Kimberlin. If he finds one of his subjects still proclaims innocence, he doesn’t continue his research with them.

Read the continued Triple Homicide coverage HERE

But all death row inmates have one similarity.

“The common denominator is they like to appeal as long as possible. Their reasoning is they’re still in control. They get to control everything to the end,” Kimberlin said.

Such sentiments were reflected by Clinton in the statements he made to the court Tuesday in unsworn testimony during the penalty phase of his trial. Because it was unsworn, he was free from examination by prosecutors or even his attorneys. Clinton remained in control.

“They want to be heard,” Kimberlin said. “But they never want to be criticized or interrupted.”

Clinton will likely maintain that perspective, similar to what he presented on the stand, up until his execution date, if he gets that far.

“After dealing with countless inmates, nothing surprises me anymore with someone that’s condemned,” Kimberlin said. “My guess is when it comes up before the clemency board, he’ll profess his innocence and be very cocky toward the family in the process.”

In the 20 years of appeals that would be likely to follow a death penalty sentence for Clinton, the families of murder victims Heather Jackson, 23, and her children, Celina, 3, and Wayne Jr., 20 months, will have a long journey.

“They’re always going to have to be present, fighting it or living it somehow, living it and rehashing it, all the way through the clemency hearing,” Kimberlin said.

It will be a draining fight.

“I’ve seen a lot of family members die before execution ever takes place, and how the defendant takes pride in that,” he said.

The Register had a question-and-answer session with Kimberlin this week.

Q: How many executions have you witnessed?

A: Five different ones. I had two stays on top of that, and will probably have four or five more in the future. I go to death row on a regular basis.

Q: What’s it like to witness an execution and to be the last person to speak with someone before they die?

A: It’s very surreal. I’ve told people before, I’m glad it’s a four-hour drive home. It gives me a chance to process everything and move on to the next subject. It’s definitely not like anyone would imagine it would be.

Q: What is the focus of your research of the psychology of inmates on death row?

A: I’m looking at the psychological aspect of living, and knowing the exact dates of death and how that may or may not change them for the better or worse on death row. I’m also working on another book about serial killers. I’ve been the only one to sit down and interview Anthony Sowell and a couple other ones, kind of like getting into their mindset as well.

Q: What is it that draws your interest to death row?

A: The unknown. Most people have absolutely no idea what goes on on death row and during an execution because it’s such a closed-door and secretive type of process. People always have an opinion, but they don’t always have an educated opinion. I want to bring everything I can to the forefront about the execution process and life on death row. Then people can make an educated decision.

Q: Do you have an opinion on capital punishment?

A: I won’t say I’m for or against it. I do remain unbiased and neutral.

Q: Where else have you studied death row, besides Ohio?

A: Tennessee, California, other states. There’s a huge difference in not only the process, but life on death row and it’s throughout the United States.

Q: What’s the biggest difference you see in Ohio?

A: The amount of amenities and freedom that they have. (In Ohio), they have more than others.

Q: What are inmates like on death row?

A: The persona in front of everyone is they like to pretend to be hardened and educated. One-on-one, there’s no handcuffs, there’s no bars. They’re very much, for the most part, very meek and mild, even jovial. You have to remind yourself that they’ve killed a ton of people.

Q: What do you know of the experiences of the victims’ family members?

A: In my professional and personal experience, I feel bad for both families, the condemned inmate’s as well as the victim’s. I feel bad for Clinton’s mother, just as I feel for Heather and the kids’ parents … I do get to see the victims when they go into their side of the death chamber, and I see how drained they are, and I know how much joy the defendant takes in draining them during the two or three decades they’re there. This defendant is going to own them, so to speak. What they’re looking for is closure, which I’m convinced never happens.

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