For the third time this year, news organizations have filed a lawsuit challenging the secrecy that surrounds lethal injections in the United States.
This latest lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania on behalf of four media organizations — the Guardian’s U.S. operation, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Philadelphia City Paper — that are demanding additional information regarding an execution scheduled in the state later this month.
“There is growing public concern about the manner in which lethal injection executions are carried out,” states the lawsuit, an emergency motion filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
These media outlets are seeking more information about the source of the drugs that would be used in the execution of Hubert L. Michael Jr., who is scheduled to be put to death on Sept. 22.
The lawsuit said that public trust in capital punishment “turns, to no small degree, on the reliability and efficacy of the drugs used.” Revealing the source of the drugs could identify problematic issues or confirm that the drugs are reliable, the lawsuit states. “Either fact would be of intense interest to the public in this time of heightened awareness and scrutiny of the lethal injection process,” it said.
Meanwhile, the state has said the pharmacy supplying the drugs could refuse to do so if it was named, and at the state’s request, a district court judge sealed the company’s name. This lawsuit is seeking to unseal the documents with the identity of the lethal injection drugs.
Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said Thursday the department does not comment on issues relating to lawsuits.
States that carry out executions have scrambled recently to obtain the lethal injection drugs due to an ongoing shortage. (Some have even considered reviving firing squads or other older methods, which were left behind as lethal injection became the primary method of execution.) This has resulted in additional scrutiny of how these executions are carried out, something that has only been heightened after three executions in three different states went awry this year.
As a result of the shortages and the high-profile issues with executions, the topic of how states obtain these execution drugs “has become of far greater interest to the public” recently, the lawsuit noted.
Two other lawsuits this year have also criticized the highly-secretive way executions are carried out. Last month, the Guardian’s U.S. operation and the ACLU filed a lawsuit demanding that journalists and witnesses be allowed to see everything that happens from the moment an inmate enters the execution chamber. They cited the state’s botched execution of Clayton Lockett earlier this year, during which key moments (including fumbled attempts at inserting the IV) were not visible to outside witnesses. And in May, media outlets sued the Missouri Department of Corrections to force it to release more details about where the state was obtaining the drugs it was using in lethal injections.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed the execution warrant for Michael, who was convicted of kidnapping and murder, in July. This was the 35th such warrant that Corbett has signed since he took office in 2011 and the second he has signed for Michael. Two of Corbett’s predecessors — Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell — also signed execution warrants for Michael. All three of the previous warrants were ultimately dissolved after stays were issued as Michael filed various appeals, which were ultimately denied in court, according to Corbett’s office.
Executions in Pennsylvania are carried out using lethal injection at the State Correctional Institution Rockview (not far from Pennsylvania State University in State College). The state, which currently has 184 people on death row, has executed three people since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, switching to lethal injection from the electric chair in 1995. But it has not executed anyone since 1999.
The state did have an execution scheduled for June, but it was stayed. Lewis Jordan, who was sentenced to death for shooting and killing a Philadelphia police officer, was one of four people originally set to be executed nationwide during a single 24-hour period. His execution was stayed before that date, owing to multiple appeals still available to his attorneys. The other three executions scheduled for that 24-hour period were carried out in Georgia, Missouri and Florida, the most executions in such a concentrated period since three inmates were put to death over three days in November 2012.