I will admit that I was wary when Dale Johnston started dating my mother-in-law in 1998. His name had become a byword for brutality, violence, and wickedness in the town where we lived.
The bodies of Annette Cooper and Todd Schultz, Dale’s stepdaughter, were found in parts in the area of the Hocking River in 1982. The savage attack and murder of the young couple shocked the entire neighbourhood.
There was a strong desire for justice in the community, and there was intense pressure to find whoever committed this heinous deed. Dale was suspected of carrying out the murders because he objected to Todd and Annette’s engagement. Dale has consistently denied being involved, and there are other prime suspicions. However, officials focused in on Dale and attempted to twist the truth to fit a story that was, at best, tenuous. Dale was found guilty of the killings and given the death penalty in 1984.
The courts started to notice apparent flaws in the case as it moved through the appeals process, including hypnotic witnesses, poor science, and a hesitation to go after credible suspects. The judges who reviewed Dale’s case discovered each new justification for his release one by one. Finally, Dale Johnston was freed the following day after being cleared on May 10, 1990, which was 32 years ago.
Though being released from prison did not necessarily mean Dale was truly free. He had been wrongfully imprisoned, and he had lost his livelihood, his community, and his name. He lived in the aftermath of this incident for many years. I’ll be honest and say that I had some reservations when it appeared that Dale would replace my biological father as my stepfather-in-law. Nobody is to blame but me. He had endured years of everyone’s disapproval. The police were so sure they had the right man.
The suspicion began to lift rather than dissipate after two people confessed to the killings in 2008. The damage was already done.
When I recall Dale’s story, I am outraged at how quickly we put this innocent man to death. Dale Johnston was accused by everyone of killing his stepdaughter and her fiancé in a terrible manner. We had better be absolutely positive that we have the right person if we’re going to be responsible for taking their life. However, they wasted years seeking for and blaming the incorrect individual. If Dale Johnston—the man who has undergone so much violence for so long—was actually always innocent, how can we ever be sure that we are carrying out the right steps? The death penalty must simply be eliminated if we are so prone to making mistakes.
In addition to being a preacher, I’m also Dale’s relative. I agree with what Jesus has to say. When asked about a crime that carried the death penalty in His day, He responded, “Let you who are without fault cast the first stone.” Nobody took any action. The group turned and walked away. Who among us has the power to change someone’s course in life, to put it simply? We might let God, who creates life, be the one who takes it. This has convinced me that Ohio should abolish the death penalty, along with the systemic problems I have personally witnessed.
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