As I wrote in a recent column, Keith had been sentenced to die on September 15 for a multiple murder that he might not have committed.
New evidence in Keith's case discredits the eyewitness identification by which he had been convicted. The evidence also identifies an alternative suspect, Rodney Melton, who may have actually committed the crime for which Keith was convicted. Keith has an alibi for the time of the crime, supported by four witnesses. Nevertheless, on August 19, the Ohio Parole Board rejected Keith's clemency petition by a vote of 8-0.
This is a case in which public pressure likely made the difference. According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, "more than 25,000 people from Ohio and around the country signed online petitions in support of Mr. Keith. In the last two weeks alone, more than 7,000 people sent letters to Governor Strickland urging him to grant clemency. Kevin Keith supporters included a bipartisan group of 31 former judges and prosecutors, current and former state legislators, former Republican Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, the national Innocence Network, more than 100 Ohio faith leaders and organizations, and many others... [T]hey were instrumental in helping to persuade Governor Strickland to grant clemency."
Governor Strickland issued the following statement regarding the commutation:
"Kevin Keith was convicted, by a jury, of callously murdering three people - including a four-year old child - and shooting three others, including two young children. Since the time of his arrest more than 16 years ago, Mr. Keith has maintained his innocence, insisting that someone else committed the murders.This is a good first step. Now what we need is a full and fair review of the case by the courts.
"Mr. Keith's conviction has been repeatedly reviewed and upheld by Ohio and federal courts at the trial and appellate level. The Ohio Parole Board recommended against clemency in this case. There is evidence which links him to the crimes that, while circumstantial, is not otherwise well explained. It is my view, after a thorough review of the information and evidence available to me at this time, that it is far more likely that Mr. Keith committed these murders than it is likely that he did not.
"Yet, despite the evidence supporting his guilt and the substantial legal review of Mr. Keith's conviction, many legitimate questions have been raised regarding the evidence in support of the conviction and the investigation which led to it. In particular, Mr. Keith's conviction relied upon the linking of certain eyewitness testimony with certain forensic evidence about which important questions have been raised. I also find the absence of a full investigation of other credible suspects troubling.
"Clearly, the careful exercise of a governor's executive clemency authority is appropriate in a case like this one, given the real and unanswered questions surrounding the murders for which Mr. Keith was convicted. Mr. Keith still has appellate legal proceedings pending which, in theory, could ultimately result in his conviction being overturned altogether. But the pending legal proceedings may never result in a full reexamination of his case, including an investigation of alternate suspects, by law enforcement authorities and/or the courts. That would be unfortunate - this case is clearly one in which a full, fair analysis of all of the unanswered questions should be considered by a court. Under these circumstances, I cannot allow Mr. Keith to be executed. I have decided, at this time, to commute Mr. Keith's sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Should further evidence justify my doing so, I am prepared to review this matter again for possible further action."
I hope that will be possible, even in the same court system that has rejected Keith's appeals in the past.