Citing Public's Right to Know, News Agencies File Suit over Secret Execution Drugs

The death chamber at the Missouri Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Mo. (James A. Finley / Associated Press)

Citing Public's Right to Know, News Agencies File Suit over Secret Execution Drugs

Citing First Amendment principles, newspapers argue Oklahoma must tell public about origin, ingredients of lethal injection "cocktail"

Following a gruesome "botched" execution of an inmate last month, a coalition of newspapers--backed by the world's largest news agency--has filed suit against the state of Oklahoma for refusing to disclose details about the origin and contents of the drugs it is using to perform the death penalty in the state.

Filed in an Oklahoma court on Thursday, the suit (pdf)--brought by the Kansas City Star, the Springfield News-Leade, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Guardian, and the Associated Press news agency--is unusual as it makes a First Amendment argument against state officials who have refused requests to say what kind of drugs are being used, where they are being produced, and under what conditions.

According to the Guardian, the suit is believed to be the first in which "the first amendment right of access [to information] has been used to challenge secrecy in the application of the death penalty."

On April 29th, outrage and horror ensued after Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer, was "tortured to death" after the supposed lethal dose of an undisclosed "cocktail" of drugs failed to work. Lockett took more than 43 minutes to die and did so only after "writhing" in pain, "clenching his teeth" and was ultimately killed by a massive heart attack that occurred after the "procedure" was called off.

The violent and disturbing episode served to highlight the increasing trend among states that continue to employ the death penalty of concealing the origin of the drugs they are administering.

As Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, explained to the Guardian: "This is like the government building bridges, and trying to hide the identity of the company that makes the bolts... Those involved in public service should expect public scrutiny in order to root out problems, particular when the state is carrying out the most intimate act possible - killing people."

The next scheduled execution in the Oklahoma is Russell Bucklew on May 21.

Highlighting America's woeful human rights record and public attitude towards capital punishment, a new NBC poll released on Thursday shows that despite horrific stories like that of Lockett's execution, popular opinion still widely accepts and supports the policy of state-sanctioned murder. According to MSNBC's reporting, if lethal injection drugs were deemed unsafe, many Americans would support a return to other methods, including the gas chamber, electric chair, or hanging.

Citing the new NBC poll numbers, MSNBC reports:

Only one in three voters surveyed believe that the death penalty should be stopped altogether if lethal injections can no longer be carried out, the survey found. Of the two thirds that support alternatives to lethal injection, many support methods that were retired after they were deemed too cruel by many states.

20% of respondents said they would support returning to the gas chamber, 18% would back using the electric chair, 12% support death by firing squad, and 8% said they were for hanging.

Support for the death penalty has fallen in recent years, but a majority of Americans still believe it is an appropriate punishment. The NBC poll found that 59% of people support the death penalty for murder, an increase from the 55% support shown by a 2013 Pew Research poll.

Just as there are racial disparities in those who currently sit on death row, there is a major gap in support between white and black Americans. While 64% of white people support the death penalty, 58% of black Americans oppose it.

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