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Lethal Injections Criticized as Cruel

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By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006

BALTIMORE, Nov. 15 -- An attorney for a condemned man said in federal court Wednesday that Maryland's method of execution risks causing excruciating but undetectable pain and would not be permitted under state law even "to euthanize household pets or barnyard animals."

Attorney A. Stephen Hut Jr., speaking during closing arguments in a civil suit filed on behalf of death row inmate Vernon L. Evans Jr., said the state's specific method of execution -- which, as in most other states, employs three chemicals in sequence -- should be ruled unconstitutionally cruel.

The first chemical anesthetizes the inmate, the second paralyzes the muscles and the third stops the heart. Evans's attorneys argued that the second chemical serves little purpose and masks whether the inmate is conscious, potentially concealing signs of intense and unnecessary suffering.

Evans's attorneys are asking for various remedies, including that medical professionals be involved and that contingency plans be established for when problems arise.

Assistant Attorney General Phillip Pickus, on behalf of the state, dismissed the concerns as unproven "speculation and conjecture." He accused Evans's attorneys of attempting to "shift the death penalty debate from the legal community to the medical community," where, he said, doctors are under pressure not to participate in executions.

"Your honor, this is not necessary," Pickus said of the notion that highly trained medical professionals should be involved. "An execution is not a medical procedure."

The arguments by Evans's attorneys resemble claims made in recent months on behalf of condemned inmates in other states. In several of those cases, courts have been persuaded to grant stays or order changes to the procedure.

Constitutional challenges to lethal injection, though once rare, have multiplied since April 2005, when the Lancet, a British medical journal, published a study arguing that, because of mistakes by poorly trained personnel, many U.S. prisoners put to death by lethal injection might have been able to feel pain when lethal drugs began to flow.

Evans's attorneys argued that he would be particularly susceptible to errors in the administering of the drugs because many years of intravenous drug use have ravaged his blood vessels.

Hut said yesterday that, under state law, potassium chloride may not be administered in euthanasia of animals unless trained personnel have assessed whether the animal is, indeed, unconscious.

Evans, 56, was convicted in the 1983 contract killings at a Pikesville hotel of two potential witnesses in a federal drug case. He was under a death warrant in February and could have been executed at any time when a state appellate court granted a stay to consider challenges on several grounds, including the contention that the method of execution is unconstitutional. The state court has not ruled on those issues, which are similar to the claims Evans's attorneys presented in the federal case.

U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg, who can issue a ruling at any time, said yesterday that he would expect the state to have "a great interest" in involving medical professionals to reduce "the certainly not inconsiderable possibility of failure." He said the availability of anesthesiologists or other medical professionals might help determine whether such involvement is feasible.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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