Lethal Injections Lawsuit Demands Transparency

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On the day Clayton Lockett was sentenced to be executed in Oklahoma, something went wrong. He should have died immediately, but instead­ he suffered for 43 minutes, writhing and convulsing in pain. Eventually, one of his veins ruptured, causing him to have a heart attack and die.

What media outlets are calling a “botched” execution has incited a broader national debate around practices of secrecy in the death penalty. In Missouri, a lawsuit filed by The Associated Press, the Guardian U.S. and the three largest Missouri newspapers is paving the way in this conversation. The lawsuit demands that under the First Amendment, news-gathering organizations should have the right to access information about the specific drugs used in the death penalty, as well as the drug companies that supplied them.

When individuals like Lockett experience such profoundly disturbing deaths, it is imperative that the public have access to the specificities of these cases. Without these details, journalists have no way of accurately reporting on this topic. We stand with these reporters and support this lawsuit, as it asks Missouri — and other states ignoring the public’s right to information — to make its proceedings more transparent.

Since the European Commission imposed restrictions on the export of certain drugs used in the death penalty in 2011, the U.S., which had previously been dependent on exported European anaesthetics, has struggled to find alternatives in its production of lethal cocktails. As the boycott on these drugs continues to impact the United State’s administration of the death penalty, Missouri has become increasingly tight-lipped about its process.

In October, the state expanded the definition of its “black hood law.” While the law once guarded the identity of those involved in the killing of inmates, the department of corrections now includes those who “prescribe, compound, prepare or otherwise supply the chemicals for use in the lethal injection procedure” in the law’s definition. Furthermore, Missouri most likely receives its drugs from a compounding pharmacy, or an “outlet that makes up small batches of the drug to order in the absence of stringent regulation,” according to The Guardian.

Missouri is scared that those involved with these new, experimental drug processes might be exposed to the public’s eye. Or, perhaps the state is concerned that once this information is released, people may quickly realize the level of incompetency surrounding the development of these painful and inhumane methods of killing other human beings.

At least 13 states changed their rules to withhold all information from the public concerning these lethal drugs, according to The Guardian. They include many active death penalty states, including Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and Missouri.

Since these new secrecy rules have been enacted, six inmates have been executed in Missouri. Not one of them knew the source or quality of the drugs they were injected with before they died. Nor did any news-gathering outlet.

In early January, Oklahoma death row inmate Michael Lee Wilson muttered, “I feel my whole body burning,” after being injected with a compounded drug. In Ohio, Dennis McGuire gasped for air and struggled — 20 minutes later, he was dead. Until Missouri comes clean about the details, people on death row will remain the subjects of reckless state policies while the public stands by, watching in horror.