The mechanics of death in Maryland run several dozen pages of emotionally detached detail. They discuss, from start to finish, how the state set about executing John F. Thanos in 1994, Flint Gregory Hunt in 1997 and Tyrone X. Gilliam in 1998, and how prison officials this week are ready to execute 42-year-old Steven Howard Oken.
Maryland does not publicly disclose the time and date of death in advance, the lingering legacy of a time when releasing that information led to a distasteful public spectacle. A Circuit Court judge signs a warrant that specifies a five-day window during which the condemned inmate will suffer lethal injection. The state correction commissioner and the individual whom he designates his "execution commander" decide the hour and day.
Not until three hours before the procedure is scheduled to begin are the dozen witnesses alerted. Their destination is the old Maryland penitentiary -- now, of all ironies, a prison hospital -- in downtown Baltimore.
Yet as the state Correction Division's "Execution Operations Manual" makes clear, the preparation gets under way far in advance with weekly drills. The commander leads two units: a special security team that monitors the inmate in the days beforehand -- up to the moment he climbs onto the table where he will die -- and a second team that carries out the execution. The first group operates within the confines of what used to be called the death house, an isolated, second-floor configuration of gray walls and gray floor, as well as four gray cells, each 8 feet, 9 inches long and 71/2 feet wide. The other group works around the corner, quite literally.
"There's a lot of planning that goes into this," said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Correction Division. "We want to maintain decency and dignity and do it as smoothly as possible."
For all the impassioned arguments for and against the death penalty, when a case advances this far -- as Oken's has after almost 17 years -- a routine sets in. The momentum continues even if legal challenges are pending, such as tomorrow's 2 p.m. hearing in federal district court on the defense attorney's appeal for a stay of execution.
Fourteen days prior to execution week, for example, the execution area is inspected, equipment checked and personnel prepped. All observations of the inmate are recorded.
Four days prior to execution week, "crowd control strategies" for possible demonstrations for and against the death penalty are planned with Baltimore police. "Receipt of pharmaceuticals" is verified.
In the next several days, and in the countdown hours before the execution, the inmate is asked to detail funeral arrangements. Telephones into and out of this area of the Metropolitan Transition Center are tested and retested to prevent any delay in communication should a last-minute stay be granted by a court or the governor. The inmate's personal property is inventoried, and he puts in writing what is to be done with it.
By the targeted day, the plan dictates that Oken will be waiting in cell No. 1 of the special security unit, where correction officials say "tranquillity" is the goal, and the most prominent sound is the cool, constant whoosh of the ventilation system.
He will have traded the orange "jumpers" of the Supermax facility across the street, his home for the past 13 years, for a set of scrubs and shoelace-less sneakers that are a washed-out shade of tan. He can be handed a phone through the cell's thick bars and can receive visitors, but there is no close human contact. A thick, red line demarcates a several-foot-wide zone that neither relatives nor defense attorney can violate.
A radio and TV are allowed -- outside of the cell.
Oken will be afforded some variety for his last meal, officials say, but hardly a carte blanche menu. And when the time has come, he will be handcuffed again through the bars and his hands and legs shackled via a "chain box" that will force him to shuffle to his death in the adjacent room.
There, an intravenous line will be inserted as he lies on a padded gurney, and the witnesses will be brought into the observation room. He will have a moment to make a last statement. Then, the unseen Execution Team will begin releasing the three specified chemicals -- color-coded red, green and blue -- into the IV line. The final one will stop Oken's heart.
Within minutes, it should be over.
Oken is scheduled to die for the 1987 sexual assault and murder of Dawn Marie Garvin, a 20-year-old college student and newlywed whom he murdered in her Baltimore County apartment. Two weeks later, he also murdered his sister-in-law and, after driving to Maine, a young motel clerk.
His would be the fourth lethal injection in Maryland. Between 1961 and 1994 -- which included a brief period when the Supreme Court deemed capital punishment unconstitutional -- the state put no one to death. Between 1923 and 1961, however, 80 people were hanged or sent to the gas chamber. Fifty-three had been convicted of murder, 27 of rape.