Lethal injection training faulted

Those carrying out executions in Md. are unqualified, 2 doctors testify

September 20, 2006|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN REPORTER

In the most detailed public assessment of the people who perform Maryland's executions, two doctors offered a blistering critique in federal court yesterday of the men and women assigned to carry out the state's lethal injection procedures, describing them as poorly trained and unqualified for their jobs.

Testifying in a lawsuit filed by death row inmate Vernon L. Evans Jr., the physicians criticized execution team members' understanding of intravenous systems and of signs that an inmate being put to death might be conscious, and one doctor concluded that some don't comprehend their individual responsibilities on the night of an execution.

Asked by an attorney for the state whether he found it "reassuring" that team members practice monthly and then weekly as a scheduled execution approaches, Dr. Mark J.S. Heath responded, "Not with this group of people, I don't."

"The totality of all their knowledge is grossly inadequate," Heath, an anesthesiologist and assistant professor at Columbia University, testified. "Them spending time together ... is likely to lead them further astray into other areas of misconception."

The doctors testified on the second day of the trial in the suit filed by Evans, whose attorneys are challenging Maryland's lethal injection procedures on grounds that they violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

They also argue that three decades of intravenous heroin use by Evans have so ravaged his veins that he is at a particular risk of excruciating pain.

The trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore follows similar lawsuits filed in other states by condemned prisoners contesting lethal injection procedures. Courts in three of the 37 states that use nearly identical lethal injection procedures have required officials to modify their procedures, and executions have been halted in two other states because of pending legal challenges to the lethal injection protocol.

Evans, 56, was sentenced to death 14 years ago for the 1983 contract killings of David Scott Piechowicz and his sister-in-law, Susan Kennedy, at a Pikesville motel where they worked.

Piechowicz and his wife, Cheryl, who was also an employee at the Warren House Motor Hotel, were scheduled to testify in court against drug kingpin Anthony Grandison. Grandison, also sentenced to death for the killings, remains on Maryland's death row.

The Maryland Court of Appeals postponed Evans' execution, scheduled for the week of Feb. 6, to hear pending legal challenges.

The postponement also allowed Evans to pursue his federal suit. His legal team, led by A. Stephen Hut Jr., hopes to persuade U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg to direct Maryland officials to change their execution procedures and to require that trained medical personnel be involved.

Other than a doctor whose role in past executions has been limited to pronouncing death, the team member with the most medical training is a certified nursing assistant, according to testimony.

During opening statements, Laura Mullally, a lawyer for the state, said that an execution should not be held to the same standards that the practice of medicine is.

Evans' defense team is scheduled to call to the witness stand today and tomorrow seven members of Maryland's execution team. Because their identities are protected, they will testify in a closed courtroom while a live audio feed pipes their comments into another room.

Yesterday's testimony offered something of a preview.

After playing short segments of the execution team member's sworn testimony from videotaped depositions or relying on their expert medical witnesses to summarize the team members' earlier testimony, Evans' attorneys asked the two physicians, Heath and Dr. Thomas Scalea, a surgeon and physician in chief at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, to evaluate the execution team members' statements.

In one clip, the retired state trooper responsible for injecting lethal doses of three drugs into IV lines said he had never before seen the Maryland Execution Operations Manual.

Asked to skim some of its contents, he testified that he had heard other team members saying some of the steps contained in the manual during past executions.

"There's a lady who says things like this," he said in the clip. "But I never paid a whole lot of attention to it because it doesn't have much to do with what I do."

Heath testified that the phrase that the man read from the manual involved the injection of drugs, that team member's precise job.

"It sort of defies comprehension that when they talk about injecting a syringe of drugs that he says that doesn't have to do with what he does," Heath said.

In another videotaped snippet, the doctor who has declared executed inmates to be dead expressed surprise that the state had also designated her as the person who would slice into an inmate's limb to insert a catheter in a deeper vein if the team's nursing assistant could not start a standard IV.

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