Protesters back claim against lethal injection

Murderer contends drugs in executions are cruel

May 27, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Six years after convicted murderer Tyrone X. Gilliam was put to death by lethal injection, opponents of capital punishment are revisiting that execution as they work to stop another one.

At a news conference yesterday outside the state penitentiary complex in Baltimore, the protesters - contending that Gilliam's execution was "botched" - supported convicted killer Steven Oken's contention that the state's method of lethal injection is akin to torture.

Death penalty opponents say Gilliam may have been conscious when the drug used to induce a heart attack was administered.

"You wouldn't even do a dog like this," said Gilliam's brother-in-law, John Gilliam-Price.

A warrant sets Oken's execution for the week of June 14. Motions on his behalf are pending in a Towson courtroom, and death penalty opponents have scheduled two town hall meetings and a protest.

"I think we should have a public outcry," Del. Salima S. Marriott said during yesterday's news conference. "No one benefits by the loss of a life. ... It is not a form of justice."

The opponents said they were trying to get Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's ear in hopes he will commute Oken's death sentence.

Oken's mother, who attended the news conference, said she has sent three letters to Ehrlich but has received no response.

"I don't know what else I can do, other than to come to these meetings and hope and pray," Davida Oken said.

The governor said yesterday that he would not give his opinion on the constitutionality of lethal injection as a method of execution, pointing to the pending motions in the case. But he added, "All of you know my views with respect to capital punishment. I am a supporter and always have been."

Oken was sentenced to death in 1991 after being convicted in Baltimore County Circuit Court of raping and killing Dawn Marie Garvin, a 20-year-old White Marsh newlywed. He also was convicted of killing his sister-in-law, Patricia Hirt, in Maryland and motel clerk Lori Ward in Maine.

Gilliam, 32, was convicted in 1988 of kidnapping and killing 21-year-old Christine J. Doerfler.

At the rally yesterday, lawyer Jerome H. Nickerson Jr., who watched his client Gilliam's execution, said he saw a leak from the IV line used to administer the three drugs in the process.

An anesthesiologist signed an affidavit, part of the lawsuit brought by Oken, saying that the liquid was likely the barbiturate intended to put him to sleep.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which administers lethal injections, said officials are satisfied that the past three executions - including Gilliam's - have been conducted "humanely, painlessly and with dignity."

Oken's lawsuit, in addition to claiming that Gilliam's execution was botched, questions the second drug used in lethal injections. Some death penalty opponents say the drug masks pain caused by the third drug, which stops the heart.

Fred W. Bennett, Oken's lawyer, filed the lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court, but the city administrative judge ruled Tuesday that the case should be moved to Baltimore County.

Another motion Bennett filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court focuses on whether Maryland's lethal injection procedure follows the guidelines set forth by the state legislature.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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