Commentary: Lawyer recounts work on Resnover death penalty case

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By David F. Hurley

Dec. 8 marked the 20th anniversary of the execution of Gregory Resnover. Resnover was the last person in the state of Indiana to be convicted of murder and sentenced to death by electrocution. This article is not about the death penalty, but rather a look at people in the legal community and elsewhere who were called upon to enforce the law in a very stressful and emotionally charged environment. Many of the attorneys involved in this execution were morally opposed to the death penalty, but nevertheless upheld the oath they took when admitted to the bar.

Many of my friends and acquaintances in the legal community might have been very young when this occurred or possibly not yet admitted to practice. I’m not going to name any of the people I worked with on this matter, other than Indiana Attorney General Pam Carter. For many, it might be a chapter in their legal career that they would rather not resurrect.

I served as the section chief for tort litigation in the attorney general’s office, supervising much of the civil trial work for the office. In 1994, I was asked by Carter to head up a team of attorneys who were assigned to represent the state in the months leading up to the execution of Resnover at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

I had worked as a public defender and deputy prosecutor in Marion County. I had also served as a commissioner in Marion Superior Court, Criminal Division. I had prosecuted and defended people charged with murder. I had not been involved in any death penalty litigation. Needless to say, those experiences alone did not adequately prepare me for this assignment. I really had no idea how time-consuming and mentally draining this event would be for me and my family.

Resnover was sentenced to die in the electric chair for the December 1980 killing of Indianapolis Police Sgt. Jack Ohrberg. Sgt. Ohrberg was killed while trying to arrest Resnover and another person on an outstanding warrant for the killing of a Brink’s guard. After numerous appeals, the Indiana Supreme Court set an execution date in December of 1994. Fourteen years had passed since the crime was committed, so it was unlikely that the execution would be delayed again.

Resnover was represented by two of the finest criminal defense attorneys in the state. A good perspective of what they went through can be found in an Indianapolis Star article published Feb. 26, 2001. The legal battles that continued up to the day of the execution were thorough and professional due to the hard work of all the members of his defense team and the lawyers that I supervised.

Consequently, the approximately three months that I was assigned to this task were filled with long work hours. I was the supervisor of the legal team for the state, but the team members were the ones who wrote the briefs, and argued in court and before the Indiana Parole Board. I did not realize at the beginning of this assignment that there would be such a significant amount of litigation. The people in the attorney general’s office, like me, had a regular “day job” to contend with while doing legal work on the Resnover matter. No one ever complained. They jumped into the fray and did their jobs to the best of their ability.

At some point, the attorney general and the Indiana State Police, based upon intelligence gathered by various law enforcement agencies, decided that I and my family should have police protection. At the time my children were all in grade school. I had received death threats before when I was a prosecutor, but this situation was very different. Now my children were involved. The stress related to this was overwhelming at times.

For the few months prior to the execution, the team of attorneys worked seven days a week. The only day that most of us didn’t work was Thanksgiving Day. Much of the work was done in the evenings. During much of this time, I did not have a car so I would catch a bus home, many times around midnight. Technology was much different then. Instead of a cell phone, I carried with me a pager and a bulky portable phone which was dubbed the “purse phone.”

On Dec. 7, 1994, the day prior to the execution, a special judge in Marion County ordered me to personally videotape it. An Indiana State Police helicopter was made available for me to fly to Michigan City. The attorney general decided to appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, by way of a conference call, ruled that the execution would not be videotaped. I was relieved by its ruling. The court ruled with barely enough time for me to have gotten to Michigan City.

After the court’s final ruling, I sat in the attorney general’s office awaiting word from Michigan City. What do you say or talk about when you know a fellow human being will be executed within the hour? Resnover and his family had suffered. I had spoken to the victim’s widow, Betty Ohrberg, earlier in the evening. Although she had lost her husband many years ago, she and her family continued to suffer. Emotions were raw.

When word came that Resnover had died, I quietly left the Indiana Government Center and went home. I was met by an Indianapolis police officer who was on duty. He reached me before I opened the door to my home, shook my hand and congratulated me on a job well done. I thanked him politely, but I did not feel anything. I was exhausted and empty. I just wanted to see my family and make sure they were OK.

The next day, on little sleep, I went to work and met with Carter and members of the team for a debriefing. Clearly, every member of the team had been affected by this experience. No one rejoiced. No one celebrated. Most cried and let out emotions that had been kept inside for the past few months. I often think about that experience and what we all went through. None of us signed up for this, but we all felt a responsibility to uphold the law, holding sacred the oath we took as attorneys.•

David F. Hurley is an attorney at Hurley & Hurley P.C. in Indianapolis. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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