O'Malley awaits court action on lethal injection

Gov.-elect says he'll obey state law despite personal opposition to capital punishment

December 19, 2006|By Jennifer McMenamin and Andrew A. Green | Jennifer McMenamin and Andrew A. Green,sun reporters

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley said yesterday that he will wait for guidance from the state's highest court before deciding whether Maryland should continue its practice of carrying out capital punishment by lethal injection.

"We are waiting for our Court of Appeals to make its decision and then when that happens, you'll see the legislature and executive act according to its guidance," said O'Malley, who personally opposes capital punishment but has said he will enforce the state's death penalty statute.

His comments came three days after executions in California and Florida were halted amid concerns that lethal injection, as carried out, violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

Gov. Jeb Bush suspended all executions in Florida on Friday after a medical examiner said that prison officials botched the insertion of needles when a convicted killer was put to death last week. Intravenous lines that should have delivered fatal doses of three drugs into the man's veins instead pierced through the blood vessels, spilling the chemicals into his arms and stretching the length of the execution to 34 minutes - twice as long as usual.

In California, a federal judge hearing a death row inmate's challenge to that state's lethal injection procedure ruled Friday that it is unconstitutional.

Lawyers for Maryland death row inmate Vernon L. Evans Jr. have argued in federal and state courts that the state's lethal injection procedures are flawed.

In a lawsuit similar to the case that prompted Friday's ruling in California, Evans' attorneys have asked a federal judge to order Maryland to involve doctors and other highly trained medical personnel in state executions. U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg has said he would like prison officials to assess the feasibility of recruiting such professionals before he decides whether to require their participation.

In state court, Evans' legal team has argued that Maryland's lethal injection procedures are illegal because protocols in the state's execution manual differ from those laid out in its death penalty statute, and because the procedure was developed without legally required public input.

The Court of Appeals heard arguments in May on that issue - and three others it agreed to consider when the judges postponed Evans' execution in February. The court has not ruled.

In the wake of the Florida and California decisions, capital punishment opponents in Maryland called on the governor-elect and the legislature yesterday to repeal the state's death penalty law and leave life without the possibility of parole as the maximum sentence on the books.

"Our view is that O'Malley should get out front on this, put in a repeal bill and make it happen," said Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions. "I'm still optimistic about him taking some leadership in the upcoming legislative session."

She said that just because the Baltimore mayor has said he will uphold the law as governor "doesn't mean he can't advocate for changing the law."

Michael Paranzino, president of Throw Away the Key, a pro-capital punishment organization, said he was "encouraged" that O'Malley said he would wait for the court's decision and "not preemptively undermine the death penalty in Maryland."

Problems with individual executions, he said, do not necessarily mean there are widespread flaws.

"Any method can, in some cases, go awry. There is no perfect way to execute someone, but that does not mean that it's a violation of the Eighth Amendment" protection against cruel and unusual punishment, Paranzino said. "There can be prison conditions that are inhumane, but that doesn't mean you open up the doors to all the prisons."

Evans, 57, was sentenced to death for the 1983 contract killings of David Scott Piechowicz and his wife's sister, Susan Kennedy, at the Pikesville motel where they worked. Piechowicz and his wife, Cheryl, had been scheduled to testify in federal court against a Baltimore drug lord.

jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com

andy.green@baltsun.com

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