Maryland High Court Calls Halt to Executions

Lethal Injection Blocked Over Procedural Issue

Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 20, 2006; Page B01

Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday that the state's procedure for carrying out executions was adopted improperly, a defect that the court said must be addressed before any more condemned inmates are put to death.

The unanimous ruling by the Court of Appeals moved the debate squarely into the political realm, where Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) or his Democratic successor, Martin O'Malley, must act if executions are to resume.


Vernon Lee Evans Jr. is scheduled to die by lethal injection. The Maryland Court of Appeals found merit in Evans' challenge to the way lethal injection procedures were adopted and ordered a review.
Vernon Lee Evans Jr. is scheduled to die by lethal injection. The Maryland Court of Appeals found merit in Evans' challenge to the way lethal injection procedures were adopted and ordered a review. (Family Photo - File Photo)

Last night, O'Malley, who takes office Jan. 17, called on Ehrlich to leave the issue for the incoming administration. "I'm sure all of this will spark a renewed debate as to whether all of the money we spend prosecuting death penalty cases might be better spent fighting violent crime and saving lives," O'Malley said.

An Ehrlich aide said the administration was reviewing the matter and had not decided how to proceed.

Because of the effort required to correct the defect identified by the court, many death penalty opponents said they expect that O'Malley would ultimately chart the state's course.

O'Malley has taken a nuanced position on the issue, saying that he is personally opposed to the death penalty but that his opposition would not prevent him from signing a death warrant. "I'm very much in favor of life without parole for people that shoot, maim and kill others time and time again," he said yesterday.

Cindy Boersma, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland, one of several plaintiffs in the case, said of the situation: "This is a perfect opportunity for the O'Malley administration to conclude that it's not possible to have capital punishment in Maryland consistent with standards of human dignity."

In ordering that the execution of Vernon L. Evans be postponed indefinitely, the Court of Appeals did not find that the three-drug cocktail that Maryland uses in lethal injections is unconstitutionally cruel.

Rather, the court held that the process was developed by state prison authorities without legislative oversight and thus was not adopted, as regulations are supposed to be, in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act.

The court offered two paths to remedy the defect. The procedure could be adopted properly, a step that would require action by the secretary of public safety, a gubernatorial appointee, and a legislative panel; or the legislature could exempt the execution protocol from the requirements of the act.

A. Stephen Hut Jr., the attorney who argued the case in May on Evans's behalf, said yesterday that mounting scrutiny over the pain lethal injection may cause should have a sobering effect on either process.

"I think all of the botched processes in other states become highly relevant," he said.


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