Medics key in killer's appeal

Judge might direct that Md. check on doctors' availability for lethal injections

November 16, 2006|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,sun reporter

The federal judge hearing death-row inmate Vernon L. Evans Jr.'s challenge to Maryland's lethal-injection procedures said yesterday that he might direct state corrections officials to "test the recruitment waters" in search of doctors or highly trained nurses to participate in state executions before he rules on whether to require the medical professionals' involvement.

U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg said that nine days of trial testimony, stretched over three months, had left "a hole in the record" regarding the availability of doctors and nurses trained and willing to monitor an inmate's level of consciousness and to perform a surgical procedure to establish an IV in a major vein.

Evans' lawyers say that such medical professionals should be involved in state executions to prevent the unnecessary risk that the convicted killer could experience excruciating pain as he is put to death.

Attorneys representing the state have countered that an execution is not a medical procedure and should not be held to the same standards as the practice of medicine. The execution team consists of a doctor who declares death, a nursing assistant who establishes IVs in the condemned inmate's arms and prison employees who prepare and administer fatal doses of three drugs.

Legg must decide whether to grant Evans' requests to direct the state to employ more qualified doctors and nurses in the procedures and to develop contingency plans of what to do if problems occur.

"I could see writing an opinion that says the state can't find anyone, and if they can't find anyone, they're perfectly entitled to use paraprofessionals," Legg told the lawyers during their closing arguments in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. "But I can also see writing an opinion that if they're relatively easy to come by and don't charge too much ... the burden on the state isn't too high."

A. Stephen Hut Jr., who is leading Evans' legal team in the federal case, told the judge that documents turned over by the state during the lawsuit revealed that prison officials had found a doctor willing to start a specialized IV for Evans' scheduled execution in February in the event the judge ordered the state to use one. Hut also said in court that someone offered contact information for other willing doctors to a state prison official at a conference.

"If the doctors aren't hanging off trees, they sure are readily available," Hut said in an interview after the hearing.

But Phillip M. Pickus, an assistant attorney general representing the state, told the judge that requiring doctors' involvement in executions "brings us into a whole new world with a whole new set of problems."

"Where is the line going to be drawn?" Pickus asked, wondering aloud whether the physicians would have to be board-certified, licensed to practice medicine in Maryland or trained in particular specialties. "This is a slippery slope that we don't want to go down."

Although the American Medical Association and other professional organizations have taken firm positions against any involvement by doctors and nurses in the administration of capital punishment, some doctors across the country have agreed to take part in the belief that their involvement will help ensure that lethal-injection procedures are carried out as humanely as possible.

Most medical professionals who participate -- in Maryland and elsewhere -- do so anonymously. And although opponents have lodged complaints with medical licensing boards against the few doctors who have been publicly identified, those complaints have been dismissed.

Evans, 57, was sentenced to death 14 years ago for the 1983 contract killings of David Scott Piechowicz and his sister-in-law, Susan Kennedy, who were fatally shot at a Pikesville motel where they worked.

Scheduled to be put to death during the week of Feb. 6, Evans' execution was postponed when the Maryland Court of Appeals agreed to hear four legal challenges. A decision on those appeals is pending.

Hut argued yesterday that the unqualified and poorly trained members of Maryland's execution team are so unfamiliar with lethal-injection procedures that they could cause Evans to suffer a "barbarous and torturous" death. The inmate's veins -- compromised by years of daily heroin injections -- exacerbate deficiencies in the protocol, he said.

But Pickus said that Evans' legal team has presented "a catalog of everything that can possibly go wrong" in an execution but that the potential problems amount to nothing more than "speculation and conjecture."

"In many ways, an inmate actually has a peaceful death," he told the judge. "He's put to sleep, and he dies in his sleep. Thousands of people in hospitals die more painful deaths than an inmate put to death under the Maryland [lethal-injection] protocol."

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