TIME justice

Newspapers Sue Missouri Over Execution-Drug Secrecy

The Guardian is one of the newspapers suing Missouri's department of corrections to force the state to reveal where it’s acquiring controversial drugs being used to execute death-row inmates Suzanne Plunkett—Reuters

The Guardian, the Associated Press and three local newspapers have joined forces in the growing controversy over death-penalty transparency. The lawsuit challenges Missouri's refusal — new as of October last year — to disclose the source of execution drugs

A group of five newspapers announced Thursday they’re suing the Missouri department of corrections to force the state to reveal where it’s acquiring controversial drugs being used to execute death-row inmates.

“Historically, information about the drugs used by [the department of corrections] in lethal injection executions was routinely made available to the public. In October 2013, DOC unilaterally changed course and began to deny all public access to this information,” the suit alleges. “Without this information, the public cannot provide meaningful oversight of the executions that the state of Missouri conducts in its name.”

The suit is the latest volley in an ongoing tug-of-war between inmates, media, transparency advocates and death-penalty states over whether governments can keep secret the identities of businesses that provide drugs used to execute convicts on death row. European restrictions on exporting drugs used in executions have caused supplies to dwindle in recent years, prompting states to seek alternatives elsewhere that may be to blame for a series of botched executions of late. States have resisted calls to reveal the source of the alternative drugs.

According to the Guardian, 13 states have changed their laws and statutes to protect drugmakers’ anonymity. But so far, legal challenges to make lethal-injection executions more transparent have failed. In Georgia, a challenge to the state’s shield law is awaiting a decision by the state supreme court. In Texas a district court rejected an appeal regarding its secrecy law involving death-row inmate Robert James Campbell. (His execution was later stayed after his lawyers successfully argued that Campbell’s low IQ made him ineligible for capital punishment.)

In Oklahoma the state supreme court ruled its secrecy law constitutional after months of back-and-forth within the state’s judicial system, allowing the eventual execution of death-row inmate Clayton Lockett to go forward. The execution, which took place a few days after that decision, went awry as Lockett jerked and twitched after prison officials had trouble locating a vein to administer lethal-injection drugs. Lockett eventually died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began.

The lawsuit brought by Associated Press, the Guardian, the Kansas City Star, the Springfield News Leader and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch challenges Missouri’s refusal — new as of October last year — to disclose the source of execution drugs. Missouri has refused to disclose its source on the grounds that pharmacies that provide them are part of the execution team and thus protected under the state’s “Black Hood Law.”

A total of 41 inmates currently await execution on Missouri’s death row.

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