Murderer’s execution put on hold while victim’s family waits

LUCASVILLE, Ohio – A man condemned to death and the family of his victim waited more than six hours past his scheduled execution time Tuesday for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether his the sentence should proceed, with the court finally deciding to block it.

Inmate Kenneth Biros, who killed a woman and scattered her remains across two states, waited for the decision in Ohio’s death house. When told of the ruling, Biros’ mother clasped his hands through the bars of his cell and he thanked God, said defense attorney John P. Parker.

Afterward, prisons director Terry Collins said the execution would not happen Tuesday.

The execution team had waited in a holding pattern while the court decided, ready to administer the lethal injection if the court granted the state’s request to go ahead with the execution.

The state stopped preparations and planned to move Biros out of the death house shortly after the Supreme Court ruling was announced, Collins said.

The justices’ one-sentence decision agreed with two lower courts that had ruled to delay the execution, including the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that refused earlier Tuesday to allow a hearing before the full court to consider a state appeal.

Biros, 48, acknowledged that he killed Tami Engstrom, 22, in 1991, but he said he did it during a drunken rage.

They met after work at a tavern in Masury in northeast Ohio. Police believed she fled his advances, perhaps ran from his car and fell or was struck or strangled when Biros tried to quiet her. An autopsy found several beating and stab wounds before her death, and the coroner said she was stabbed five times immediately afterward and dismembered within minutes.

A search based on Biros’ information led to body parts that had been buried, and some dug up and reburied, near Masury and in adjacent areas in northwest Pennsylvania. Her head, right breast and right leg had been severed, intestines were found in a swampy area in Ohio, a leg was broken over a railroad track, the torso was found in rural Pennsylvania and part of a liver was found in the trunk of Biros’ car.

The death sentence should have been called off after the scheduled 10 a.m. execution time, instead of making Biros and his family wait in limbo for hours, defense attorney Timothy Sweeney said after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“To put these poor people through that is just not right,” he said.

Prisons spokeswoman Andrea Dean said the state had to wait for a court ruling or for the warrant allowing Biros’ execution to expire at midnight.

Biros’ other lawyer told him about the ruling. Two relatives were with him at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, but Dean did not know what his reaction was.

Engstrom’s sister, Debi Heiss, 41, of Hubbard, told The Herald in Sharon, Pa., that members of her family who spent most of Tuesday waiting for the execution in a hotel near the prison, were furious.

“We just want it to end,” she said. “We want to get on with our lives, we want to close the chapter.”

Heiss said she would continue pushing for Biros’ execution.

“I feel like a rag doll, like I got run over by a truck,” she said. “How these courts could do such a thing, it’s just, it’s very frivolous.”

Attorney General Marc Dann said he would renew his efforts to have the sentence carried out.

“Legal issues aside, I want to express my sympathy and compassion for the family and friends of Tami Engstrom who have been living with the pain of their tragic loss for the past 16 years,” Dann said in a statement.

On Monday, three judges on the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati upheld a lower court’s order blocking the execution, saying Biros should be able to continue appealing a lawsuit with other inmates arguing that Ohio’s method of lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.

Other executions have been delayed in the past year because of the suit, although a former cult leader was put to death despite his appeal.

Biros has an a separate appeal before both the 6th Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court that claims he was not convicted of an offense that merits the death penalty.

A Monday U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a separate case gave attorneys hope that Biros’ death sentence will be thrown out, Parker said. His attorneys argue that the indictment against Biros had the same error that resulted in throwing out the death sentence of convicted murderer Richard Joseph.

Biros’ execution also had been delayed in January when newly elected Gov. Ted Strickland said he needed more time to research the case. Strickland denied Biros clemency on Friday, and the execution would have been the first under the governor.

Biros will be moved back to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown on Wednesday.

The last time a delay in court rulings led to a long wait was in 2003, on the day inmate Richard Cooey was to be executed, according to the prisons department. The Supreme Court upheld a ruling postponing his execution about two hours before his death warrant was scheduled to expire at midnight.

Collins said he couldn’t remember another time when the wait went past the scheduled start time for the execution.