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Federal judge agrees to hear Oken's appeal

A federal judge has agreed to hear convicted killer Steven Oken's last-minute appeal for an execution delay based on his claim that Maryland's method of lethal injection violates the Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, lawyers for Oken and the state said yesterday.

In addition, Oken's lawyers said they have other legal maneuvers in the works, including an expected filing with the Supreme Court.

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Oral arguments are scheduled to be heard at 2 p.m. Monday by U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte in federal court in Greenbelt, lawyers for the two sides said. Although Oken's execution could take place as early as Monday, the state has agreed not to act before the federal court hearing, lawyers on both sides said.

Bennett also filed a motion yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court to reopen Oken's case, based upon a claim of ineffective counsel during his 1991 trial.

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A motion to delay Oken's execution accompanies that filing, which Bennett said draws upon a Supreme Court decision last June that resulted in a Baltimore County man being removed from Maryland's death row.

Oken's lawyers said they will ask the Supreme Court to overturn the 6-1 ruling Wednesday by the state's highest court. The Maryland Court of Appeals refused to delay Oken's execution and ruled that lower courts had not erred in declining to hear his motion that the state execution process violates Maryland law.

The Court of Appeals also upheld a lower court decision to dismiss a lawsuit from Oken claiming the lethal injection procedure is unconstitutional because it is akin to torture.

Maryland Assistant Attorney General Scott S. Oakley said the state likely will argue that the appeals court's ruling precludes Oken from filing a similar claim in federal court.


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