Oken files second suit challenging Maryland's lethal-injection process

Death row inmate due for execution next month

May 19, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Convicted killer Steven Oken has filed a lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court challenging the state's lethal injection process, and has asked that a judge postpone his execution - now scheduled for the week of June 14 - while the court evaluates this most recent legal challenge.

The move comes only days after Oken filed a similar motion in Baltimore County, the jurisdiction in which he was convicted and, in 1991, sentenced to death for the rape and murder of White Marsh newlywed Dawn Marie Garvin.

The city lawsuit is broader than the motion filed in the county and picks up constitutional arguments that have been raised in death penalty appeals nationwide. In it, Oken argues that the combination of drugs used in Maryland's lethal injection process is "arbitrary" and "cruel." Maryland, like most states, uses a three-drug process to execute an inmate.

The first drug is an anesthetic that puts the inmate to sleep; the second paralyzes the inmate's muscle system and halts breathing; the third stops the heart.

Oken and others say these drugs cause, and mask, excruciating pain. They say the second drug, pancuronium bromide, or Pavulon, paralyzes skeletal muscles, but does not alter one's consciousness or perception of pain and suffering.

That means that if the first drug's anesthetic effect runs out - something critics of the three-drug series say is likely - the inmate is in severe pain but unable to show it.

The use of pancuronium bromide in animal euthanasia has been condemned by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Oken's lawsuit "is about evolving standards of decency and the very blunt question - if a Maryland veterinarian is prohibited from using a class of drugs to euthanize a dog - may Defendants use those drugs to kill a human being?" Oken's lawyer, Fred W. Bennett, wrote in the lawsuit. "This case is also about whether an individual thoroughly despised by the polity remains a human being possessed of common human dignity."

The lawsuit also says that the Maryland Division of Corrections uses a lethal injection process different than the one laid out by the legislature - a complaint also made in the Baltimore County motion.

Division of Corrections representatives could not be reached for comment yesterday. The agency's Web site says that "the worst physical pain" of lethal injection is "the prick of a needle."

Prosecutors have said that the valid issues in Oken's case have been appealed and resolved. They have asked that the civil suit be dismissed, or moved to Baltimore County.

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