Evans suit leads to changes

Lethal injections modified after action filed, execution official testifies

September 22, 2006|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,sun reporter

Maryland corrections officials recently modified their lethal injection procedures, adding better lighting in the room where the deadly drugs are injected and requiring a nursing assistant who inserts the intravenous catheters into the condemned prisoner's arms to remain in that room - perhaps in disguise - throughout the execution, a member of the state's execution team testified in a videotaped deposition played yesterday in federal court.

The man - identified only as the execution team commander - said the changes were made in response to the lawsuit filed by death row inmate Vernon L. Evans Jr., whose attorneys have challenged Maryland's lethal injection procedures as unconstitutional and in violation of the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

A. Stephen Hut Jr., who is leading Evans' defense team, told the judge hearing the case that the changes are "undoubtedly steps in the right direction." But he said that the state "essentially plucked low-hanging fruit," and that the modifications don't go far enough.

He has asked U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg to incorporate those changes into a court order that requires Maryland officials to hire medically qualified people to participate in the insertion of the IV catheters and in the administration of the lethal doses of drugs, among other tasks.

Laura Mullally, an assistant attorney general representing the state, has countered that an execution is not a medical procedure and should not be held to the same standards as surgery.

Evans, 56, was sentenced to death in 1992 for the contract killings of David Scott Piechowicz and his sister-in-law, Susan Kennedy. They were gunned down April 28, 1983, with a submachine pistol at the Pikesville motel where they worked.

Piechowicz and his wife, Cheryl, also a motel employee, had been scheduled to testify in a federal narcotics case against a Baltimore drug lord.

The witnesses testified about the changes in Maryland's lethal injection protocol on the fourth day of trial, which also brought three more members of the state's execution team to the witness stand and the playing of snippets of videotaped depositions of two other current members and a former member.

Because team members' identities are protected, they have been referred to by code names, and the courtroom was closed when they testified, with a live audio feed piping their comments into another room of the courthouse. Similarly, video monitors in the courtroom were turned off when clips of their depositions were played.

A correctional officer who helps mix the drugs and set up the equipment, identified in court as "Injection Team A," testified that the team regularly practices the lethal injection procedures on a fake arm that is placed on the steel, T-shaped table in the execution chamber.

A man who served as execution commander for the May 1994 execution of John Frederick Thanos and previously drafted Maryland's lethal injection procedures testified in a videotaped deposition that he essentially copied Delaware's protocol and, during questioning by Evans' attorneys, could answer few questions about the procedures or the drugs used.

Also, the newly appointed execution commander - the team member who stands in the corner of the execution chamber and oversees the entire operation - testified during his deposition that he has received no training in mixing drugs, setting up the lethal injection equipment, administering anesthesia, assessing whether a prisoner remains unconscious or inserting an IV.

Asked by one of Evans' lawyers what training he received to become execution commander, the man responded, "No specialized training."

It was the execution team commander - the man stationed during executions in the preparation room where he oversees the injection of an anesthetic, a paralyzing drug and a heart-stopping chemical into the inmate's IV line - who testified about the changes made last month to the lethal injection procedures.

He explained that in addition to adding a light in the preparation room and requiring the nursing assistant to remain in the execution chamber while the prisoner is put to death, the state Division of Correction will also decrease the pressure with which the saline solution - and later the lethal mixture of chemicals - flows into the inmate through the IV.

Medical experts testifying for Evans have explained that running fluid too forcefully through an IV can cause the blood vessels to rupture, spilling the lethal chemicals into surrounding tissue rather than the circulatory system of the inmate being put to death.

Evans, his attorneys contend, is at particular risk of this after decades of intravenous heroin use that have ravaged his veins.

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