Experts debate Ohio's 1-drug lethal injection

Professor Deborah Denno in The Associated Press, January 08, 2010

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By Julie Carr Smyth, AP Statehouse Correspondent  |  January 8, 2010

LUCASVILLE, Ohio --Another successful execution using a lethal injection of just one drug instead of the traditional three has fueled debate over whether the state's unique approach should be adopted elsewhere.

In Ohio's second such execution, killer Vernon Smith was pronounced dead Thursday morning eight minutes after the dose of sodium thiopental, a common anesthetic, began flowing through his body at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. In the first such execution, performed last month, it took 10 minutes for Kenneth Biros to die for killing a woman he met at a bar.

The one-drug method may be the wave of the future since it appears to be simpler, about as fast and potentially less painful, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. But states probably will want to see the one-drug method debated in the courts before adopting it based on just two executions, he said.

"This is experimental in the sense that these two have gone well," Dieter said. "But it's a small pool to be choosing from."

Ohio prisons Director Terry Collins said he was aware states across the country were watching.

"What we had seen last time is that it worked as our litigation experts said that it would," Collins said.

The one-drug injection has replaced the standard three-chemical combination, which has come under legal attack by attorneys who say it can cause excruciating pain.

Experts had initially predicted the method would result in more drawn out executions. But the time it took Biros and Smith to die was about as long as it has taken other inmates in Ohio and elsewhere to succumb to the three-drug combination.

Ohio has had other problems with its executions, including delays in finding usable veins, that still must be worked out, said Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor and lethal-injection expert.

"It would be regrettable to start labeling as a success something that just seems momentarily not to have a problem associated with it," Denno said. "This procedure should be problem-free. We shouldn't be crossing our fingers every time there's an execution."

The old Ohio system used one drug that put inmates to sleep, a second that paralyzed them and a third that stopped their hearts.

Now Ohio has shown it's not necessary to paralyze inmates before executing them, said Ty Alper, associate director of the University of Berkeley's Death Penalty Clinic. But the state's backup method -- injecting two drugs directly into muscles -- remains untested, he said.

During Smith's execution, his abdomen and neck fluttered slightly after he appeared to take a deep yawn and lose consciousness. There were no other outward signs of his impending death at age 37.

Smith was executed for the 1993 shooting death of Toledo shopkeeper Sohail Darwish, a Saudi Arabian immigrant whose store he intended to rob. Smith changed his name to Abdullah Sharif Kaazim Mahdi and converted to Islam after he was arrested.

In his final 24 hours, Smith fasted, prayed and met with his spiritual advisers. He also wrote two letters, made calls to his wife, his lawyer and a cousin and spent nearly five hours on the phone with a female friend.

His final words were a prayer repeated four times in Arabic: "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet."

The victim's wife, Charlotte Darwish, had a baby, Dolly, and was pregnant with her second daughter, Mona, at the time Smith shot and killed him at his shop. The two daughters, now teenagers, witnessed the execution along with their mother.

Mona, now 16, is the youngest witness to an execution on record with the state.

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Associated Press writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed to this story.