Evans' veins said to be suitable for fatal dose

Witnesses in trial say they saw places for injection

October 11, 2006|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,sun reporter

A nursing assistant and a paramedic who have examined the arms of death row inmate Vernon L. Evans Jr. testified yesterday in federal court that they spotted numerous veins that could be used to deliver the fatal doses of drugs used in the state's lethal injection procedures.

The witnesses - both members of Maryland's execution team - said they stood by their assessments despite the contradictory findings of Dr. Thomas Scalea, a surgeon and the physician in chief at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Scalea, who examined Evans and testified on his behalf in the prisoner's federal case challenging Maryland's lethal injection procedures, said he found no veins in Evans' arms that could support the flow of chemicals used in executions.

The debate is central to the case - now in its second week of trial in Baltimore - because Evans' lawyers argue that if an intravenous line is not properly established, the convicted killer might be insufficiently anesthetized, and conscious, when painful doses of paralyzing and heart-stopping drugs reach his bloodstream. Their expert medical witnesses have questioned the qualifications and competence of Maryland's execution team.

An attorney representing the state has countered that an execution is not a medical procedure and should not be held to the same standards as the practice of medicine.

The nursing assistant, who was responsible for starting and monitoring the IVs used in the executions of Steven H. Oken in 2003 and Wesley Eugene Baker in December, testified in court that she was using "a figure of speech" when she wrote in a sworn affidavit that she found three specific types of veins in Evans' arms.

She said she did not know the names of any veins until she consulted a book and a Web site to identify the blood vessels that she found during a 10-minute examination of Evans' arms in January. The page in the book that she said she used, however, dealt with arteries rather than veins, she acknowledged yesterday.

She said she still believes she will be able to start a successful IV for Evans' execution.

"Unless something drastic has happened to his anatomy," the nursing assistant - identified in court as "Contractual Team B" - testified, "I'm comfortable that what I saw is what I saw."

The paramedic, identified as "Contractual Team C," testified, "I saw plenty of veins in his hands and arms and insides of elbows, and that's all that mattered."

Because the identities of execution team members are protected, they have been assigned code names for the federal case. In addition, the courtroom is locked, its windows are covered with white paper and the voices of the people inside are piped into a room four floors below during the execution team members' time on the witness stand.

The testimony of the nursing assistant and paramedic came on the sixth day of trial in Evans' lawsuit challenging Maryland's execution procedures on the grounds that they violate the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

Sentenced to death for the 1983 contract killings of two Pikesville motel employees, Evans, 57, is also arguing that decades of intravenous heroin use - including when he was incarcerated in federal prison, according to court documents - 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.

After hearing four days of testimony put on by Evans' lawyers, U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg heard yesterday for the first time from witnesses for the state.

During several hours of cross-examination, A. Stephen Hut Jr., the attorney leading Evans' legal team, pointedly questioned the nursing assistant's understanding of medical terminology and her practices at the regional medical center where she has worked for a decade and in the state's execution chamber.

Asked about her deposition testimony that she "didn't even bother to look at" both of Evans' arms during the first of her three examinations of his veins, she explained that she perhaps should have used more precise language.

"Maybe I should have said I didn't examine the other arm because it looked similar," she said, later adding, "I know that in my practice, I don't always have to put a tourniquet on and get down and deep with it."

She also testified that she didn't really mean that she and the paramedics had located the radial, ulnar and basilic veins during their examination of Evans. Rather, she told the judge, she used the terms to indicate "a specific landmark spot" or region of the arm but not a particular blood vessel.

Scalea, the Shock Trauma chief, and Benjamin Laughton, a certified nursing practitioner who also testified as an expert for Evans, told the judge that the radial and ulnar veins are located deep in the arm and cannot be seen without an ultrasound machine, which both Scalea and Laughton used during separate examinations of Evans that turned up no suitable veins for use during a lethal injection procedure.

The nursing assistant also backed off her earlier testimony during a deposition that she had started IVs in patients' breasts hundreds of times.

"I said that," she told the judge. "But I was using a figure of speech. I meant `many times.'"

Pressed by Hut to define the number of times she has inserted an IV in a breast, she testified, "More than 20." Other medical personnel who have testified in the case said they have rarely, if ever, seen an IV in a patient's breast.

jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

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