Legal challenge to Delaware death penalty

June 23, 2008 12:15:01 PM PDT
Delaware prison officials botched the execution of a murderer who was put to death three years ago, attorneys challenging Delaware's use of lethal injection said in court papers filed Monday. Attorneys representing Delaware death row inmates in a class-action lawsuit claim that Brian Steckel was executed in 2005 without the proper anesthesia.

They are seeking to have Delaware's use of lethal injection to be declared unconstitutional.

Prison officials noticed that the anesthetic being administered to Steckel before he received doses of two lethal chemicals began leaking into tissue surrounding the needle in his arm, the attorneys said.

"Mr. Steckel was administered a paralytic drug and then an extremely painful heart-stopping drug without having received adequate anesthesia," federal public defender Michael Wiseman wrote.

Steckel was sentenced to death in 1997 for the 1994 murder of Sandra Lee Long in her apartment near Wilmington. Long was burned to death in a fire Steckel set after strangling her into unconsciousness and raping and sodomizing her.

Steckel's execution was so drawn out that Steckel himself wondered aloud why it was taking so long. Wiseman contends that Department of Correction officials never conducted an inquiry into Steckel's execution, and that there have been dosage errors in more than one-third of Delaware's lethal injection executions.

Prison officials have repeatedly said there were no technical difficulties, and have suggested that they simply wanted to give Steckel more time to say goodbye to loved ones.

DOC spokesman John Painter refused to respond in detail to the assertions in Wiseman's pretrial brief.

"The Department of Correction disputes the plaintiff's allegations and will address them at the appropriate time," Painter said in a prepared statement.

U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson scheduled a Monday afternoon hearing to help her decide whether Delaware's lethal injection procedure is significantly different from Kentucky's, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in April, and whether it presents a substantial risk of unnecessary pain to the condemned inmate.

Wiseman and other attorneys representing ax murderer Robert Jackson III and other death row inmates argue that Delaware's execution protocol is significantly different from Kentucky's. But deputy attorney general Elizabeth McFarlan has argued that Delaware's protocol is even more detailed than Kentucky's, leaving even less to chance.

Nearly three dozen states use lethal injection. Despite the Supreme Court's decision upholding the procedure, it remains under legal challenge in multiple states.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) AP-NY-06-23-08 1440EDT


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