With the courtroom closed, its windows covered with white paper and the voices of the people inside being piped into a room four floors below, two members of Maryland's execution team testified yesterday in federal court about their understanding of the lethal injection procedures they carry out.
The first man, a correctional officer identified only as "Injection Team E," testified that he is responsible for regulating the flow of the intravenous lines used in Maryland's executions. But the witness, whose medical training is limited to the basic first-aid courses offered to prison guards, also testified that he did not know what it means to run an IV line at a slow drip, that he would not be able to tell whether the saline solution was flowing too quickly and that he did not know whether an IV line can "go bad" if fluids are injected too quickly.
The other, a businessman and retired state trooper identified as "Contractual Team A," testified that he had no experience with intravenous medications before joining Maryland's execution team to inject the lethal doses of three drugs into a condemned prisoner's IV line.
The testimony came on the third day of trial in a lawsuit filed by death row inmate Vernon L. Evans Jr., who was sentenced to death 14 years ago for the contract killings of two Pikesville motel employees in 1983.
His attorneys are challenging Maryland's lethal injection procedures on the basis that they violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. They also argue that decades of sometimes-daily intravenous heroin use by Evans have so ravaged his veins that he is at a particular risk of excruciating pain.
The defense team is hoping to persuade U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg to direct Maryland officials to change the state's lethal injection procedures, including requiring medically qualified people to inject the drugs, to monitor an inmate's depth of consciousness and to insert an IV catheter into a central vein rather than trying to access a prisoner's circulatory system through a more standard IV in an arm.
Laura Mullally, an assistant attorney general representing the state in Evans' civil suit, has told the judge that an execution is not a medical procedure and should not be held to the same standards as the practice of medicine.
Evans' lawsuit follows similar cases filed by death row inmates elsewhere. Courts in California, Missouri and North Carolina have ordered corrections officials there to modify lethal injection procedures, and judges in Ohio and Arkansas have halted scheduled executions because of pending legal challenges to execution protocol.
But in Florida, a convicted killer who had argued that his state's use of lethal injection amounted to cruel and unusual punishment was put to death last night after the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly denied his request to again halt the execution. Clarence Hill, 48, was strapped to a gurney and awaiting execution in January when the high court decided to hear his case.
Most of the 37 states nationwide that use lethal injection for executions have adopted nearly identical procedures using three drugs - one that anesthetizes the prisoner, a second that paralyzes his muscles and a third that stops his heart.
Attorneys for death row inmates have argued that the procedures carry the risk that unqualified people will insufficiently anesthetize a prisoner, leaving him conscious when the heart-stopping chemical enters his system - but paralyzed and unable to signal his distress.
Lawyers representing state corrections departments have countered that the paralytic drug prevents twitching and seizure-like behavior that might be upsetting to witnesses and execution team members.
The judge hearing Evans' case said yesterday that he was "looking to see whether the second drug is necessary." Legg asked the correctional officer, whom he referred to as "Mr. E," what kind of an effect twitching and other movements by a dying inmate might have on execution team members. "Obviously, if he was going into convulsions or something of that nature, that would be of concern," the man said.
Most of the questions from Evans' lawyers focused on the man's understanding of his execution responsibilities and his knowledge of the lethal injection procedure in general - both of which, according to a pair of doctors who testified Tuesday, were lacking among execution team members.
The witness referred to as Injection Team E testified that he thought it was the nursing assistant's job to slow the flow of the IV fluid to a rate described in the state's lethal injection manual as "KVO," or "keep the vein open." Other team members, however, said it is the man identified as Injection Team E who is responsible for slowing the IV fluid because he works the apparatus' clamp, according to testimony.
The live audio feed piping the courtroom testimony to the other room in the courthouse was not functioning properly for most of the testimony of the man referred to as Contractual Team A, who injects the drugs into the IV.
Attorneys for Evans said after the hearing that the man told the judge that he did not know the names or functions of the drugs. The witness also said that a section of the execution manual- which he had not read but which a medical expert who testified Tuesday said concerned the injection of drugs into the IV - was not his responsibility, according to Evans' lawyers.
Philip M. Pickus, an attorney for the state, said he would not answer questions about the case.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.