Soon after Ohio prisoner George Skatzes was convicted of three murders during the 1993 Lucasville Riots, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) started to prohibit external media from visiting Skatzes for interviews.
While the initial media blackout prevented Skatzes from all forms of media under any circumstance, the ODRC has started to loosen its grip on who can be allowed to speak with Skatzes. Following a 2013 lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio against the ODRC’s media ban on behalf of Skatzes and other prisoners who were victims of “violation of the First and Fourteenth amendment,” the ODRC officially changed its blackout policy. While media persons can send requests to Chillicothe Correctional Institution, where Skatzes is housed, the ODRC maintains the final decision on approving requests.
Angie Dent, CEO of Ablaze Reform and social media manager for George Skatzes, spoke with Honeysuckle about the challenges that Skatzes’ team has had in getting his story told.
“He’s had one interview in 39 years, and it took a year of me fighting the ODRC,” Dent said. “That interviewer was a podcaster, and she made it very clear that George was not allowed to speak about Lucasville. If he spoke about Lucasville, the interview would get shut down.”
The Lucasville Riots refer to an 11-day uprising held by prisoners at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in 1993. In the midst of the uprising, a total of 10 people were killed; nine out of the ten were inmates at the prison while one was a correctional officer employed by the prison. The riots began after a fight between inmates escalated, eventually turning into a hostage situation in which inmates held 14 prison officers and threatened violence if the inmates’ demands were not met. These demands included greater religious freedoms, firing the prison’s warden and allowing for more social interaction between inmates. The riot came to an end after authorities agreed to meet the demands, but not before Correctional Officer Robert Vallandingham was killed in the midst of the riot.
In the Lucasville case, Skatzes was convicted for the death of two inmates and the murder of the correctional officer, sentencing Skatzes to death.
For years, the justification provided by the ODRC was one claiming that Skatzes was far too dangerous to be allowed to speak. However, both Dent and reports from the American Civil Liberties Union suggest that the ban against Lucasville discussion is rooted in an ulterior motive.
In the case summary of the ACLU’s lawsuit, the webpage reads, “it’s not hard to see that [the ODRC’s] actions have little to do with security and everything to do with silencing an uncomfortable conversation about the Lucasville uprising.”
Dent explained how allowing Skatzes to talk about the Lucasville riots could jeopardize the case Ohio has built against Skatzes. There are numerous contradictions, Dent said, between the stories that the prosecution presented against Skatzes and the stories that people inside the prison tell when recounting the events of the Lucasville riots.
Dent provided two examples of these contradictions: “They said that George was guilty of three murders: Corrections Officer Robert Vallandingham, and two offenders. During the time the two offenders were killed, he was outside on the megaphone talking to two negotiators.”
Outside of being a negotiator for the rioting inmates, Skatzes acted as a guard for prison officers that had been taken hostage by the rioters.
“George protected the officers during the riots. [The officers] admitted that. Had it not been for George, sleeping there in the middle [of the hostages’ room], there could have definitely been more deaths.” Dent did not name which officers provided these statements.
The statements from the officers held hostage differ from the argument put forth against the prosecution, showing that Skatzes helped the officers rather than harmed them. This contradiction is meant to make it difficult in proving that Skatzes would be capable of murdering the correctional officer.
“If Ohio finds out the truth and the people find out the truth, there’s going to be a lot of trouble,” Dent said, implying that release of the truth could incite distrust toward Ohio state authorities from citizens invested in the case.
Aside from these contradictions, the ACLU looks at media blackout precedent from the ODRC, comparing past examples to the current case of George Skatzes:
“In all, Ohio prison officials have approved nearly two dozen media interviews with other death row inmates while denying each and every request for face-to-face interviews with the five Lucasville prisoners,” the ACLU website states. “This ban is a special form of extended vengeance, reserved only for them.”
The withholding of Lucasville-related information doesn’t stop at media denials. According to Dent, George “is not allowed his discovery of the [Lucasville] case. The courts and the federal public defenders claim there is a gag order that keeps him from having information. But I went to get a copy of that gag order. There’s not a gag order. His federal public defenders are keeping his own case from him.”
The circumstances around Skatzes’ imprisonment at Chillicothe Correctional Facility are riddled with questions about human rights violations. The media blackouts and blocked Lucasville discussion show breaches of Skatzes’ first amendment right to free speech while his very placement on death row raises the ethical quandary of the death penalty.
The national ACLU’s discussion about the death penalty begins with the following statement:
“The U.S. death penalty system flagrantly violates human rights laws. It is often applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner without affording vital due process rights. Moreover, methods of execution and death row conditions have been condemned as cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment and even torture. The U.S. death penalty system has also failed to protect the innocent.”
Many of the sentiments expressed by the ACLU can also be applied to Skatzes’s case. In the original arguments made in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the ODRC, the media blackout surrounding Skatzes makes it nearly impossible for Skatzes to build any sort of public defense by not allowing him to speak about his involvement in Lucasville. By directly violating his freedom of speech, the ODRC is indirectly violating Skatzes’ fourteenth amendment right to due process. It certainly does not help that Skatzes is constantly denied access to discovery-based information about his own case, as Dent explained.
Additionally, the death penalty’s failure to protect the innocent extends directly into Skatzes case. If the contradictions set forth by Dent are to be believed, then few people would argue that Skatzes is guilty of what he is charged with beyond a reasonable doubt. If media blackouts are the state’s way of concealing Skatzes’ innocence in favor of some other item, then Skatzes’s execution could very well be the very death of an innocent man.
“[George] is still able to smile and laugh,” Dent said. “And he knows he’s at the end.”
Prior to Lucasville, Skatzes was being convicted for the aggravated murder of Arthur Smith in May 1983. Even in this case, independent investigations conducted in the aftermath of the case question Skatzes’ guilt, spotlighting multiple testimonies of alleged corruption in the local law enforcement involved in the case. Currently, a petition is circulating for his exoneration.