Killer's case will be heard in county

State's lethal injection is cruel, Oken contends

May 26, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Convicted killer Steven Oken's lawsuit that argues the state's lethal injection process is inhumane will be heard in a Baltimore County courtroom instead of in Baltimore, the city's administrative judge ruled yesterday.

Judges in Baltimore County, where Oken was sentenced to die in 1991, are better suited to hear the lawsuit because they are more familiar with the case, said Baltimore Circuit Judge Marcella A. Holland.

"I don't believe the interest of justice is served by a city judge taking over," she said.

Lawyers for the attorney general's office asked that the lawsuit be transferred to the Baltimore County Circuit Court in Towson because of Oken's 13-year history of litigation there.

But Oken's lawyer, Fred W. Bennett, argued in court that the city was the proper venue for the suit because "that's where Oken has been living and that's where he is scheduled for execution."

Bennett called the attorney general's motion to change the venue to Baltimore County "a raw exercise in forum shopping." He said prosecutors want to find a court that will move forward with Oken's execution, scheduled for the week of June 14.

A new hearing date was not set, but Holland gave Baltimore County prosecutors until close of business tomorrow to respond to the lawsuit.

In addition to the lawsuit, Bennett has filed a separate, narrower motion in Baltimore County Circuit Court that asks for Oken's execution to be delayed because of what the attorney said is a discrepancy between Maryland law and the state's procedure for administering lethal injection.

The law stipulates that an execution should be carried out with the "continuous administration of an ultra-short acting barbiturate or similar drug in combination with a chemical paralytic." The state's written procedure, however, does not require the continuous application of the barbiturate and includes a third drug, intended to stop the inmate's heart.

The lawsuit filed in Baltimore Circuit Court takes a broader approach, arguing among other things that the combination of drugs is "arbitrary" and "cruel." Pancuronium bromide - the second of three drugs administered - has been condemned for use in animal euthanasia by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Bennett also said a Supreme Court ruling Monday might boost Oken's chances of winning an appeal.

Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that a convicted triple murderer in Alabama has the right to challenge his death sentence on the grounds that it could be cruel and unusual punishment. David Larry Nelson's attorney said that because his client's veins were damaged from years of drug use, prison officials may have to cut into his arm or leg to find a vein.

Bennett said yesterday that Oken could face the same procedure - not necessarily because of any past intravenous drug use but because prison officials could have difficulty accessing a vein.

Oken was convicted in 1991 of raping and murdering Dawn Marie Garvin, a 20-year-old White Marsh newlywed. Oken also was convicted of killing his sister-in-law, Patricia Hirt, in Maryland and motel clerk Lori Ward in Maine.

A protest of Maryland's execution procedures is scheduled for 3 p.m. today outside Supermax prison on Madison Street.

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