AT LEAST three horrifically botched executions last year — in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Arizona — heightened public alarm and revulsion at the risk of cruel and unusual methods of capital punishment. Short of abolishing the death penalty, the solution for states is to seek and ensure more humane methods. Instead, some are taking a sneakier, and constitutionally more suspect, route: dropping a veil of secrecy over executions.
The most recent example, and one of the most obnoxious, is legislation passed in a lame-duck session of Ohio’s legislature last month following the shockingly bungled execution a year ago of Dennis McGuire, a convicted murderer who choked, gasped and writhed for 26 minutes before succumbing.
The law, signed just before Christmas by Gov. John Kasich (R), offers anonymity to compounding pharmacies that agree to manufacture the drugs used in state executions, as well as to others involved in carrying out executions. The bill would shield the identity of and public records pertaining to other medical and non-medical personnel who furnish supplies or administer the drugs used in executions.
The effect is to impose a gag order on potentially adverse reports that could inform the public debate over capital punishment. By making much relevant information secret, the law gives government accountability a black eye.
More than a dozen states have adopted similar laws and policies, and others are considering measures that are wildly overbroad.
A notable case is Virginia, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) administration has submitted a bill to the legislature that goes well beyond the Ohio law. The legislation, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), would make practically everything about executions in Virginia a state secret — even the building in which they take place. The information would be exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act and even off-limits to plaintiffs in most civil lawsuits.
It’s hard to see the compelling need for that kind of blatant censorship, which in other states has been challenged by death row inmates, civil liberties groups and media outlets as an infringement on the First Amendment. Depriving the public of information on the dark side of capital punishment, and impoverishing the public debate, will not make botched executions any more palatable.
Taxpayers who provide the funds that pay for the drugs used in lethal injections deserve to know when mishaps occur. The fact that such mishaps might arouse public disgust does not justify granting anonymity to drug companies that enter into government contracts. If it did, states might conclude that any unpleasant news, and the resulting inconvenient public reaction, would occasion suspending the First Amendment.
The death penalty has been on a long and steady decline in America, with fewer states using it and those that retain it executing and condemning to death ever fewer prisoners. The fact that this trend has been impelled largely by public opinion is no excuse for shrouding ever-rarer executions under a cone of silence.
Read more about this topic: