Ohio execution is Evans suit focus

Witness provides details of botched lethal injection procedure that occurred in May

September 23, 2006|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,sun reporter

Dorian Hall, a social worker with the Ohio public defender's office, was in the witness room of a Lucasville prison as a convicted killer whose case she had worked on was about to be put to death.

She watched as two paramedics inserted a catheter into Joseph Lewis Clark's left arm, struggled to find usable veins on his right arm for a second intravenous line and then abandoned their search. She watched as prison staff escorted him into the execution chamber and strapped him to a gurney. And she watched as he made his final statement and then lay back to await the doses of anesthetic and two other drugs that would flow into the IV line.

"I could tell he was breathing. His legs were moving," Hall testified yesterday in federal court in the lethal injection lawsuit filed by Maryland death row inmate Vernon L. Evans Jr.

It was then, Hall testified, that Clark raised his head, looked at the prison staff in the execution chamber with him and said, "It's not working. It's not working."

Because Ohio's lethal injection procedures are similar to Maryland's, lawyers for Evans called Hall as a witness yesterday to demonstrate what can go wrong, particularly when inadequately trained or unqualified people are given the job of putting condemned prisoners to death.

But Laura Mullally, an assistant attorney general defending the state department of public safety and correctional services in the lawsuit, told the judge in her opening statement this week that any testimony about the Ohio execution would be "nothing more than a distracting sideshow to this proceeding."

Evans, 56, sentenced to death for the 1983 contract killings of two motel employees in Pikesville, is challenging Maryland's lethal injection protocol on the grounds that it violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

His lawyers also have argued that decades of intravenous heroin use by Evans - including as recently as four years ago when he was incarcerated in a federal prison in Atlanta, according to court documents - have so ravaged his veins that he is at a particular risk of excruciating pain.

A. Stephen Hut Jr., leading Evans' legal team, has asked U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg to direct Maryland officials to modify the state's execution procedures and to require that trained medical personnel be involved in key steps of the protocol.

The judge heard four days of testimony this week. Among those testifying were past and current members of Maryland's execution team as well as three medical experts who described the team members as poorly trained and unqualified for jobs they carry out.

The state will put on its case over several days in October followed by closing arguments from attorneys on both sides.

Hall, who supervises the mitigation and investigation unit of the Ohio public defender's office, testified that she left the execution feeling "extremely sad and horrified that Joe had to experience that. ... It looked to be painful."

News accounts of the May 2 execution described the process as taking 90 minutes, having been delayed by a collapsed vein in Clark's arm and paramedics' difficulty in finding a replacement.

The 37 states that use lethal injection follow nearly identical procedures: An IV line is started in each of the inmate's arms with one IV designated as the primary line and the other a backup. Then, usually in an adjoining room shielded from the inmate and any execution witnesses, lethal doses of three drugs are injected into the prisoner's IV port - an anesthetic (sodium pentothal) followed by a drug that paralyzes the muscles (pancuronium bromide) and a chemical that stops the heart (potassium chloride).

Some witnesses to Clark's execution quoted him as saying, "It don't work," while others said he cried out, "It's not working," according to newspaper reports.

Hall testified yesterday that much of the struggle to find a new vein occurred behind a curtain that prison officials drew after it became apparent that the IV line inserted into Clark's arm was not functioning properly.

Likening the noises heard through the curtained glass window that divided the execution chamber and witness room to those of a woman during childbirth, Hall described eight to 10 minutes of "loud, intense guttural moans and groans, as if someone was in agony."

During cross-examination by Mullally, Hall said she had "no idea" whether Clark was awake when any of the heart-stopping drug reached his circulatory system and as a result might have suffered "excruciating pain."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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