Reprieve volunteer

Desperate measures in Ohio

on 08 December 2009

Barring a last-minute appeal, Kenneth Biros will be subjected to an inhumane experiment later today; he’ll be the first person in the US executed using a new method of lethal injection traditionally used to put down pets.

At 3pm (GMT) today, the state of Ohio intends to test the controversial single-drug lethal injection on Mr Biros. He has been on death row for 18 years since 1991, having been convicted of first degree murder.

Until now, the standard method of execution in the 37 US States that retain the death penalty, has been by way of a triple-drug cocktail lethal injection. The new method has never been used before and involves administering an overdose of the anaesthetic thiopental sodium. Should this fail two back-up injections of midazolam and hydromorphone, will be injected into Mr Biros’s muscles. The back-up method has never been tested and the qualities of the two chemicals are completely unknown at high doses.

The catalyst for adopting the new protocol has been a series of botched executions in the last three years in Ohio, most recently the horrific failure to execute Romell Broom in September this year. During Mr Broom’s execution attempt, officials tried for two hours to locate a vein to administer the poison. At one point Mr Broom himself attempted to assist his executioners to locate a vein, turning on his side and rubbing his arm to no avail, an experience that left him distressed and weeping. In contravention of ethical guidelines, a doctor was then called in to administer the drip. Following no less than 18 attempts the execution was abandoned - Mr Broom was returned to his cell and currently remains on death row.

Brian Evans, a campaigner against the death penalty with Amnesty International USA, points out the new method still relies on finding a vein which was the problem that provoked the state to make a change in the first place. Richard Dieter, head of the Death Penalty Information Centre in Washington, said “in other countries or in any medical field there would be all kinds of restrictions about doing things to experiment on human beings. It would never be allowed.”

In fact, the Nuremberg Code, drawn up after the discovery of gruesome Nazi medical experiments, set strict rules for doctors with respect to human experimentation including the requirement that tests be voluntary and for the social good. Sadly, the code does not cover executions. However even the US Supreme Court is aware of the dangers of the new method. In declaring the previous method constitutional, Chief Justice John Roberts commented that single injection execution “has problems of its own, and has never been tried by a single state”.

Yesterday Mr Biros spent much of the day in a small cell seventeen steps away from the death chamber following the refusal of a federal appeals court in Cincinnati to delay the execution. He has been subjected to several health and mental health checks, plus a vein assessment.

The practice of committing another human being to an uncertain fate and knowledge that anything can go wrong can only be regarded as inhuman and degrading. State prosecutor Charles Wille’s belief that “somebody has to go first” highlights the States insensitivity in treating those on death row as nothing more than guinea pigs. Indeed, many vets deem the proposed method of execution as even unfit for animal euthanasia.

Many of Reprieve’s clients have been on death row for many years, often decades. All suffer the torment and anguish experienced by Mr Biros, an experience that many commonwealth countries acknowledge as inhuman and degrading when they commute death sentences for those on death row for five years.

By Sherif Malak

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