Witnesses summoned to view execution

Professor Deborah Denno in The Columbus Dispatch, December 08, 2009

Media Source

Witnesses summoned to view execution
Ohio will be first to employ new 1-drug method

By Alan Johnson

LUCASVILLE, Ohio -- Media witnesses have entered the death house at the prison here as the process to execute killer Kenneth Biros gets under way.

Originally scheduled for 10 a.m., the execution was delayed about an hour while Biros awaited word from the U.S. Supreme Court on a last emergency appeal, based on Ohio's new one-drug method.

LUCASVILLE, Ohio -- As Tami Engstrom's family entered the prison this morning to witness the execution of the man who killed her in 1991, they were asked if they were ready.

"We've been ready for 18 years," said one of the family members.

Ohio is squarely in the national spotlight today as it uses an untested, one-drug protocol to execute convicted Trumbull County killer Kenneth Biros.

State officials say they are confident, practically and legally, about using a single massive dose of the anesthetic thiopental sodium to execute Biros. The procedure replaces a three-drug cocktail abandoned by Ohio but still used in 35 other states.

As the hour of the execution approaches, prison officials were considering the possibility of a delay since the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled yet on Biros' final appeal. Biros himself apparently was preparing for death, drinking large quantities of water. Fluid intake can prevent the difficulty in finding veins that plagued Ohio's previous execution attempt.

However, Ohio's new method has doubters, including Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor and expert on lethal-injection legalities.

"There should be an enormous amount of focus on this," she said. "This is one of the more important cases involving lethal injection in the last two or three years."

Denno predicted that the U.S. Supreme Court, if asked, would not be likely to OK the one-drug method because it is not "substantially similar" to the three-drug procedure the high court approved in a pivotal Kentucky case last year.

Further, she questioned the state's untested backup plan, which involves injecting large doses of two painkillers directly into an inmate's arms, legs or buttocks. She said that method has not been used "any time, anywhere in the world."

The debate about the lethal-injection method has largely overshadowed the crime for which Biros was convicted and sentenced to death.

But Engstrom's family has not forgotten. Her mother, brother and sister are set to witness Biros' execution at 10 a.m. today at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville.

Biros, 51, killed Engstrom, who was 22 at the time, after offering to give her a ride home from a bar on Feb. 7, 1991. He dismembered her body, leaving body parts in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Biros arrived at the prison yesterday and ordered his last meal: a pizza with extra cheese, onions, mushrooms and green peppers; deep-fried onion rings and mushrooms with ketchup; Doritos chips with French onion dip; cherry pie; blueberry ice cream; and Dr Pepper.

Biros still has legal appeals pending that could stop his execution. Timothy Sweeney, Biros' Cleveland attorney, said challenges are pending at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The execution is scheduled to go forward using a totally new and untried procedure," Sweeney said. "We are making an effort to put the brakes on the process so everyone can take a step back and do a more careful, cautious review."

Sweeney has called the untested process "experimentation."

The new procedure, using a single intravenous dose of a powerful anesthetic, was announced on Nov. 13 by prisons director Terry Collins. It replaces a three-drug protocol that has caused problems in the past, most recently during an attempt to execute Romell Broom on Sept. 15. Broom's lethal injection was halted after prison medical technicians spent two hours unsuccessfully trying to attach IV lines. A new execution date has not been set.

The one-drug procedure is similar to the method used in euthanizing animals.

If there are problems with the new method, prison personnel can fall back on another also-untested procedure involving large doses of two painkillers, hydromorphone, an opiate, and midazolam, often used for pre-surgical sedation. The drugs would be injected into muscles in the upper arm, thigh or buttocks.

U.S. District Court Judge Gregory L. Frost issued a lengthy decision yesterdaydismissing Biros' request to stop the execution because of the new lethal-injection procedure. The federal appeals court turned down an appeal last week, and Gov. Ted Strickland rejected a clemency plea.