MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

April 5, 2014

Secrecy surrounds execution drugs in most of the states

ST. LOUIS (AP)  — Dating to the days when the guillotine operator or the hangman wore a mask, a certain amount of anonymity has always surrounded executions. But that secrecy is increasingly coming under fire, with judges, death penalty opponents and lawyers questioning why so little can be known about a state’s most solemn responsibility.

An Associated Press survey of the 32 death penalty states found that the vast majority refuse to disclose the source of their execution drugs. The states cloaked in secrecy include some with the most active death chambers  —among them Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and Missouri.

Most states have recently begun relying on loosely regulated “compounding pharmacies” for execution drugs but refuse to name them, citing concerns about backlash that could endanger the supplier’s safety. But many states refuse to provide even more basic information  —how much of the drug is on hand, the expiration date, how it is tested.

Those who question the secrecy wonder how an inmate’s constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment can be guaranteed if nothing is known about the drug being used to kill him.

“As far as we know, it could be coming from a veterinary source, it could be coming from some dark corner of the Internet,” said Cheryl Pilate, a Kansas City, Mo., attorney who handles death row appeals. “We simply don’t know.”

The most prolific death penalty states have successfully deflected most challenges to secretive protocols. But momentum is building toward unlocking details.

Following a Missouri execution in December, a federal appeals judge wrote in a dissenting opinion that the state was using “shadow pharmacies hidden behind the hangman’s hood.” The state has executed three other men since then.

Last week, an Oklahoma judge voided the state’s execution law, agreeing with two inmates who claimed a “veil of secrecy” that prevents them from obtaining information about lethal injection drugs violated their constitutional rights.

And on Wednesday, a federal judge in Texas halted the scheduled execution of a serial killer, ordering the state to disclose the supplier of a new batch of drugs, as well as information on how they are tested.

A federal appeals court threw out that ruling hours later, and Tommy Lynn Sells was put to death Thursday after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to step in.

To many death penalty supporters, the debate over secrecy is a ploy to delay executions.

“We’re overly worried about the convict,” said Jim Hall, of suburban St. Louis. His daughter, 17-year-old Kelli Hall, was abducted from a St. Charles, Mo., gas station in 1989 and murdered. Hall watched last week as Jeffrey Ferguson was put to death with pentobarbital.

“The pentobarbital, from what I saw at the execution, has got to be one of the most humane ways of executing these people,” Hall said. None of the five inmates put to death in Missouri since November showed distress.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports capital punishment, said forcing states to reveal their drug source can amount to obstruction of justice.

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