Cooey v. Strickland

Decision Date07 December 2009
Docket NumberNo. 09-4474.,09-4474.
Citation589 F.3d 210
PartiesRichard Wade COOEY II, et al., Plaintiffs, Kenneth Biros (Intervenor), Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Ted STRICKLAND, Governor, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

John Patrick Parker, John P. Parker, Timothy F. Sweeney, Law Office of Timothy Farrell Sweeney, Cleveland, OH, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Charles L. Wille, James Eric Holloway, Office of the Ohio Attorney General, Columbus, OH, for Defendants-Appellees.

Before: SILER, GIBBONS, and SUTTON, Circuit Judges.



This appeal presents the question of whether to stay the execution of Kenneth Biros, scheduled for December 8, 2009, at 10:00 a.m., based on his challenge to the lethal injection procedure by which Ohio intends to carry out his death sentence. The district court denied Biros's request for a stay, and, because we agree that Biros in particular is unable to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits of his Eighth Amendment claim, we affirm.

When a state permissibly chooses to impose the death penalty on a properly convicted criminal, the state, not the federal courts, is in charge of carrying out the sentence, but it may not impose "cruel and unusual" punishment in imposing that sentence. U.S. Const. amend VIII. This means that the courts will not allow a state to use an execution procedure that creates an "objectively intolerable risk of harm" or a "demonstrated risk of severe pain" that is "substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives." Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 128 S.Ct. 1520, 1531, 1537, 170 L.Ed.2d 420 (2008) (plurality opinion).

Kenneth Biros previously challenged Ohio's old execution protocol, one that mirrored the Kentucky execution protocol in all material aspects and was upheld by the United States Supreme Court. See Baze v. Rees, supra. He now challenges Ohio's new execution protocol, which made two relevant changes. Both are designed to render capital punishment in Ohio more humane.

One change eliminates Ohio's use of a three-drug protocol, which allegedly created a risk that the individual would not be properly anesthetized before the third, painful injection induced cardiac arrest. Even though the Supreme Court permitted this precise three-drug protocol in Baze, Ohio sought to address this concern by adopting a one-drug protocol—the same protocol advanced by the losing plaintiffs in Baze. Id. at 1534. While Biros understandably does not wish to be the first individual executed with this new drug, his medical expert, Dr. Mark Heath, acknowledges that Ohio's change is a positive one and that the one-drug protocol is a more humane execution procedure.1 Indeed, his fellow litigants in the Cooey method-of-execution litigation, ongoing since 2004, have demanded that Ohio change to this precise procedure.

The second change in Ohio's protocol responds to another criticism—that the Ohio execution team has had difficulty accessing the veins of some individuals, most recently in the attempted execution of Romell Broom on September 15, 2009. Both in the Baze litigation and in the Cooey litigation, the claimants have registered complaints about the training of the EMTs responsible for inserting the intravenous ("IV") lines used to deliver the fatal drugs and about their inability to start an IV line promptly on some individuals. In response to these concerns, Ohio has established a two-drug, intramuscular injection as a back-up procedure if the execution team cannot obtain IV access.

In denying Biros's stay of execution, the district court determined that Biros failed to produce evidence sufficient to demonstrate a likelihood that his challenge to Ohio's new protocol would succeed on the merits. After a thorough and considered review of the record before the district court, the testimony presented at the December 4, 2009, hearing, the Ohio protocol itself, and the district court's opinion, we agree that Biros has not met his burden. He has not demonstrated that, facially or as applied to him, Ohio's new protocol "demonstrate[s] risk of severe pain" that is "substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives." Id. at 1531, 1537. Although Ohio's new protocol may not be perfect, it conforms with the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and the record indicates that it is a decided improvement on the protocol that Ohio has utilized in the past.


Biros's challenge to Ohio's lethal injection procedure under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in which he argues that the new protocol violates his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, follows protracted proceedings in which Biros sought to overturn his 1991 conviction and death sentence. Biros was convicted of aggravated murder (with two capital punishment specifications), felonious sexual penetration, aggravated robbery, and attempted rape in connection with the death of Tami Engstrom and was sentenced to death. Biros v. Bagley, 422 F.3d 379, 382-85 (6th Cir.2005). In the early morning of February 7, 1991, Biros and Engstrom left a bar in Hubbard, Ohio, together. Eventually, Biros told the police that Engstrom was dead, signed a waiver of his Miranda rights, and revealed the location of her body. Authorities recovered several of Engstrom's body parts in a desolate area of Butler County, Pennsylvania, and other portions of her body thirty miles north in Venango County. Engstrom's ring, two bloodstained knives, and clothing stained with Engstrom's blood were found in Biros's home and car.

Biros appealed his conviction and death sentence to the Ohio Court of Appeals and to the Ohio Supreme Court, State v. Biros, 78 Ohio St.3d 426, 678 N.E.2d 891 (1997), and unsuccessfully sought post-conviction relief in state court, State v. Biros, No. 98-T-0051, 1999 WL 391090 (Ohio Ct.App. May 28, 1999). He later filed an application to reopen his appeal, which the Ohio Supreme Court denied on the merits. State v. Biros, 93 Ohio St.3d 250, 754 N.E.2d 805 (2001). In September 2001, Biros filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court, which issued the writ as to his death sentence and withheld it as to his remaining claims. On appeal, we addressed each claim in turn and rejected them. After careful consideration, we concluded that the jury had imposed the death penalty after Biros had received the benefit of a fundamentally fair trial as required by the United States Constitution. See Biros, 422 F.3d at 392.

In November 2006, Biros intervened in an action initiated in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio in 2004 challenging Ohio's three-drug lethal injection protocol under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Although the district court preliminarily enjoined Biros's execution in December 2006, it vacated its decision in a 159-page opinion issued in March 2009 after a five-day hearing. The district court determined that Biros had shown insufficient likelihood of success on the merits to warrant a stay. Its opinion made clear that Biros was unlikely to demonstrate a risk of harm that rose to the level of a constitutional violation.

In September 2009, Governor Ted Strickland postponed the execution of Romell Broom after an attempt to execute him was halted when the execution team was unable to access a vein. The Governor temporarily stayed other executions scheduled for October and November 2009 but left Biros's December 8 execution in place. On October 19, 2009, the district court stayed Biros's execution and scheduled the trial date of his and his co-plaintiffs' lawsuit for July 12, 2010. The district court made no findings with respect to Biros's likelihood of success on the merits of his challenges. On October 23, 2009, Ohio notified the district court that it was seeking alternatives to its execution protocol. Specifically, the State was considering a "single drug for intravenous administration ... [or] the use of two drugs for intramuscular administration ... either as primary and secondary alternatives, or as co-existing alternatives." R. 594 at 3.

On November 13, 2009, the State of Ohio filed a second motion for summary judgment in district court in which it announced that it had modified the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction ("ODRC") policy directive regarding executions by lethal injection. An attached affidavit of Terry Collins, director of the ODRC, explained the changes made to the Ohio protocol in response to the halted execution of Broom and subsequent inquiry. Collins outlined the two most significant alterations to the May 14, 2009, protocol that it replaced: the new protocol utilizes a one-drug, IV injection with a two-drug, intramuscular injection back-up procedure should the execution team fail to locate veins suitable for IV transmittal. The new protocol took effect on November 30, 2009, and is to be applied at Biros's scheduled December 8 execution.

Because this new protocol, and not its predecessor, which was at issue in Biros's original petition for relief, would govern his execution, the State asked the district court to vacate its October 19 stay of execution as moot. When the district court refused to vacate the stay, the State urged us to do so. On November 25, we vacated the stay, finding that the new protocol mooted Biros's challenge to the old protocol and that the district court had premised its stay primarily on "concerns related to the old procedure." Cooey (Biros) v. Strickland, 588 F.3d 921, 922 (6th Cir.2009). The full court denied Biros's petition for rehearing en banc on December 4. Cooey (Biros) v. Strickland, 588 F.3d 924 (6th Cir.2009).

Meanwhile, on December 3, 2009, Biros filed a motion with the district court to amend his § 1983 complaint to challenge the new one-drug protocol, and the district court granted the motion on December 4. Supported...

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