Secrecy

Federal Court Orders Alabama to Release Execution Protocol

In a victory for the media and advocates of open government, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled on March 18, 2019 that Alabama must disclose key portions of its highly secretive lethal-injection execution protocol to the public. The Associated Press, the Montgomery Advertiser, and Alabama Media Group had sued for access to the protocol, which came under intense scrutiny in the wake of Alabama’s failed attempt to execute Doyle Lee Hamm (pictured) in February 2018.

Hamm, who has terminal cancer, challenged Alabama’s execution protocol. He argued that his veins had been compromised by his illness and executing him by lethal injection would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The courts permitted the execution to proceed after Alabama said it would not attempt to insert an IV-line in Hamm’s arms or upper extremities. On February 22, 2018, executioners tried and failed for two-and-one-half hours to set an intravenous execution line. Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeffrey Dunn called off the execution but told the media, “I wouldn’t characterize what we had tonight as a problem.” Dunn repeatedly asserted the state had followed its execution protocol and claimed the execution had been halted only because the late court rulings in the case did not leave corrections personnel sufficient time to execute Hamm before his death warrant would have expired. Hamm filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit seeking to prevent Alabama from attempting to execute him a second time. As part of that suit, he filed a doctor’s report—the only public document describing the circumstances of the execution attempt—that indicated execution personnel had unsuccessfully inserted IV needles more than 10 times into Hamm’s feet, legs, and right groin, causing bleeding in his groin, and likely puncturing his bladder, causing blood in his urine. Shortly thereafter, Hamm and the state reached a confidential settlement in which Alabama agreed not to seek another execution date, the court records of the case would be sealed, Hamm would dismiss his lawsuit, and Hamm and his lawyers would not disclose any additional information about the case. In the aftermath, the three media outlets filed a motion to gain access to the protocol and execution records. A federal district court ruled in their favor in May 2018.

Alabama appealed that ruling, arguing that the lethal-injection protocol had never been formally filed with a lower court, and therefore was not a court record subject to public access. The appeals court rejected that argument, with Judge Charles Wilson writing: “Alabama’s lethal injection protocol may not have been formally filed under the rushed timeline of Hamm’s approaching execution, but the protocol constitutes a judicial record subject to the common law right of access because it was submitted to the district court to resolve disputed substantive motions in the litigation, was discussed and analyzed by all parties in evidentiary hearings and arguments, and was unambiguously integral to the court’s resolution of the substantive motions in Hamm’s as-applied challenge to the protocol.” The decision also addressed the importance of transparency to the public, saying “Judicial records provide grounds upon which a court relies in deciding cases, and thus the public has a valid interest in accessing these records to ensure the continued integrity and transparency of our governmental and judicial offices.”

Alabama’s execution secrecy has been at the core of several other execution controversies. In December 2016, execution witnesses reported that Ronald Smith clenched his fists and gasped repeatedly for nearly fifteen minutes. After the execution, Dunn told the public only that the state had “followed [its] protocol.” State officials later refused to provide any documentation about the execution. In February 2019, late disclosure of its secret protocol provision mandating that a Christian chaplain—and no other religious adviser—be present in the execution chamber led to the controversial execution of Muslim prisoner Domineque Ray without affording him access to an imam at the time of his execution.

Two Legislatures, Two Divergent Approaches to Execution Transparency

After controversial executions raised questions of government competence or misconduct, legislatures in two states have responded with bills taking sharply different approaches to the questions of government accountability and public oversight. Following an execution in which Nebraska Department of Corrections officials closed the curtain on fourteen crucial minutes of the execution of Carey Dean Moore, the Nebraska Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on March 7, 2019 on a bill that would mandate that two legislators witness an execution and require that eyewitnesses be permitted to observe the entirety of an execution from the moment the condemned prisoner enters the execution chamber to the time death is declared or the execution is called off. By contrast, an Arkansas state senator has responded to a lawsuit by pharmaceutical companies challenging widespread improprieties in the state’s procurement of execution drugs with a proposal that the state adopt the most extreme and punitive drug-secrecy law in the country.

In her statement to the Judiciary Committee, Nebraska State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln (pictured, left), who sponsored Legislative Bill 238, said legislation was necessary to redress the “profound” lack of transparency in the state’s execution process. “This bill is not about whether the death penalty is right or wrong,” she said, “it’s about whether we have proper government accountability and transparency in carrying out this grave and somber event.” Corrections Director Scott Frakes, whom committee members criticized for failing to appear personally to respond to questions about the Moore execution, sent a letter to the committee opposing the bill. Omitting reference to the periods of the execution in which the execution-IV line was inserted and the curtain was dropped, Frakes claimed that “[w]itnesses observe the entire execution process." Referring legislators to the Death Penalty Information Center’s November 2018 report on execution secrecy in the United States, DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham told the committee of numerous incidents in which eyewitness observations could have resolved serious questions about problematic executions. Dunham told the committee that in a government by and for the people, the state “shouldn't hide important information from the people.”

In Arkansas, a bill introduced in the state senate sought to further conceal the state’s controversial execution practices. On March 6, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill sponsored by State Sen. Bart Hester (pictured, right), that would broadly exclude from public disclosure any documents, records, or information that could lead to the discovery of the state’s sources of execution drug or the identification of drug manufacturers or distributors. The bill also would make reckless disclosure of such information a felony. Arkansas’s conduct in procuring execution drugs, which led drug distributor McKesson Medical-Surgical to sue the state alleging that Arkansas had deliberately misled the company to believe that the drug purchase was for legitimate medical purposes, raised questions concerning the need for transparency in the execution process. Those questions were heightened following evidence of additional problems during executions with those drugs. After Arkansas state courts ruled that the state’s prisons must disclose portions of the pharmaceutical drug and packaging labels for the drugs it intended to use in executions, the Department of Corrections said it was suspending its search for new supplies of execution drugs until the legislature adopted even broader secrecy laws.

Hester downplayed the importance of transparency concerns, calling a March 8 meeting of a legislative Freedom of Information Act Task Force “a waste of my time.” Refusing to attend the meeting, Hester said “[a]nything that they have to say on it I don't think has value.” In an email to the Associated Press, Dunham said, “If a state wanted to break the law and breach contracts with impunity and hide its misconduct from the public, [the Arkansas bill] is the type of bad-government law it would pass.”

NEW PODCAST: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States

As execution drugs have become more difficult for states to lawfully obtain and problematic executions have become more frequent, states have expanded their efforts to shield their execution-related activities from public scrutiny. In the latest episode of Discussions with DPIC, Robin Konrad, former DPIC Director of Research and Special Projects, joins Executive Director Robert Dunham and current Director of Research and Special Projects Ngozi Ndulue to discuss DPIC’s November 2018 report, Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States. Konrad, the lead author of the report, is now an Assistant Professor of Lawyering Skills at Howard University School of Law. The discussion covers the recent expansion of secrecy in the use of the death penalty, the reasons for the unavailability of lethal-injection drugs, and the problems that have resulted from execution secrecy.

Secrecy policies are ubiquitous in the states that are currently attempting to carry out executions, Konrad explains. “Everybody has some type of secrecy provision” related to the sources of execution drugs or the way executions are carried out, Konrad says. Secrecy provisions conceal the sources of the drugs states obtain and the identities and qualifications of the execution team, and restrict the portions of the execution witnesses are permitted to see and hear. The podcast discusses these issues and questionable measures states have taken to hide potential problems, including Florida and Oklahoma taping down prisoners’ hands so witness cannot see them clench their fists in reaction to the drugs, and Virginia and Nebraska closing curtains to conceal how long the IV insertion process takes or the moments just before and after the prisoners’ death.

The episode also includes a discussion of the consequences of secrecy, including illegal actions that have been discovered only by accident or through investigative journalism. “We’ve seen states acting in a way that is often illegal, where we’ve seen states purchasing drugs overseas in an illegal manner from companies or individuals that are less than reputable. We've seen the prison officials driving money in the middle of the night across state lines to exchange money for drugs and drugs for money. We have seen the states using pharmacies that have had numerous violations. One pharmacy that was used by Missouri had … 1800 violations of state and federal law,” Konrad says. The podcast concludes with a discussion of the ways in which secrecy undermines democratic principles of open government and hides problematic state practices. “When we’re looking at [a] government ... for the people, by the people, the people should know what is going on and states shouldn't be hiding information about the most serious punishment that they carry out against their citizens,” Konrad says. “I don’t see how in any principled system of justice, you can sustain a system that basically is grounded in secrecy, grounded in hiding what’s going on from the public. You have to be open, you have to be honest, you have to be transparent, you have to be trustworthy,” adds Dunham.

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Execution Records Trial Reveals False Statements, Questionable Practices by Idaho Officials

Idaho officials deliberately misled the public about the costs and application of the state’s death penalty and prison officials’ questionable efforts at obtaining execution drugs, according to evidence presented in week-long court hearings on the state’s execution secrecy practices. Testimony from January 28 through February 1, 2019 in an open-records lawsuit against the Idaho Department of Corrections has revealed that Idaho paid $10,000 in cash to an undisclosed drug supplier, maintained a set of fraudulent financial records related to execution expenses, falsely denied having records documenting contacts with a disreputable drug supplier in India, and hid from the public information as mundane as the hairdressers who give prisoners their final haircuts. The lawsuit was brought by the ACLU of Idaho on behalf of University of Idaho law professor Aliza Cover (pictured) after the IDOC refused to turn over numerous execution-related records to her in response to a 2017 public records request.

Relying on Idaho’s Public Records Act, Cover had sought copies of receipts, purchase orders, and other information related to the drugs Idaho used in its last two executions in 2011 and 2012 and those it expects to use in future executions. The department disclosed only a copy of the state’s execution policy manual, but claimed the remaining documents were exempt from public scrutiny. Cover, who studies the death penalty and its application, sued, asking the court to order the records disclosed. Even then, IDOC resisted. In actions ACLU attorney Molly Kafka characterized as “relying on speculation and fear rather than data,” IDOC redacted dozens of items from execution records, including not only the names of prison staff who participated in executions, but their handwriting, and the names of people only tangentially involved in executions, such as clergy who counsel death-row prisoners and hairdressers who give prisoners their final haircuts. The state claimed, without evidence, that the redactions were necessary to protect those individuals from protest, harassment, or violence. Similar claims of threats against execution team members in other states have been found to be unsubstantiated. Idaho officials also withheld information on the source of execution drugs used in the past, claiming that suppliers would no longer provide the drugs if their identities were revealed. IDOC falsely told investigative reporter Chris McDaniel that records he had requested did not exist. In fact, records showed that Idaho had contact with Chris Harris—a drug supplier in India who had obtained drugs from a European pharmaceutical company for medical use in Africa and then misappropriated them instead for sale for executions in the United States.

Testimony at the trial also revealed that IDOC’s secrecy efforts extended to fraudulent recordkeeping practices. According to a former Idaho Department of Corrections employee, IDOC kept three sets of financial books because the department “did not want to show a tremendous amount of money being spent for the execution as well as for the anonymity for those involved in it.” When a person would ask the IDOC for execution-related data, the first set of books would be given out. A second set of books would be provided if the person persisted. “So, the first set would be a lower amount to not represent the total of what was being spent, and the second one had a little higher amount just to show due diligence — that there was work being done to capture all the amounts,” the official said. According to the official, “the third was the actual set of books that would actually represent the expenses.”

Testifying during the trial, Cover said: “If the public is not able to have this information about those issues, [it] cannot come to a decision on its moral view about the punishment that is occurring.” In closing statements Monday, February 4, 2019, one of her lawyers said: “[IDOC’s] argument at this point is crystal clear — this information is so important that we can’t release it, because it would change the way we do things.” An editorial by the Idaho Press urged the state to end the secrecy: “In the end, the state of Idaho needs to be transparent about the drugs it’s using for lethal injections and about where they’re getting those drugs. We see no exemption in the public records law for protecting a relationship with a drug provider.”

NEW PODCAST: DPIC’s 2018 Year End Report

In the latest podcast episode of Discussions with DPIC, members of the DPIC staff discuss key themes from the 2018 Year End Report. Robert Dunham, Ngozi Ndulue, and Anne Holsinger delve into the major death-penalty trends and news items of the year, including the “extended trend” of generational lows in death sentencing and executions, election results that indicate the decline will likely continue, and the possible impact of Pope Francis’s change to Catholic teaching on capital punishment. They explore the reasons for reduced death-penalty usage, highlighting the stories of people who were exonerated in 2018, the theme of executing people with characteristics that make them vulnerable to unfair legal proceedings, and the ongoing controversy surrounding execution methods.

DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham noted the importance of the shrinking death-row population, saying, “Death row is declining in size even as the number of executions is declining, which suggests that the decline is a result of the erosion of capital punishment, as opposed to it actually being carried out.” He explains the lack of death sentences in several traditional death-penalty states, including Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. “The biggest change is the availability of quality indigent defense,” Dunham said, adding that the adoption of life without parole as a sentencing option has also been a major contributing factor.

Dunham addresses the theme of inadequate legal process, saying that the current system fails to ensure that prisoners’ constitutional rights are fully upheld. “If we want the death penalty in the United States, ... it’s imperative that it be able to accurately assess whether somebody was fairly tried, whether somebody was fairly sentenced, and whether the individual deserves to live or die,” he said. Those procedural failures, and the secrecy that surrounds executions, have created a “distrust” among the public that Dunham predicts with have a “prolonged and lingering effect.” “In 2018, death sentences were down, executions were down for a variety of reasons, but I think one of the reasons that’s going to last and contribute to a continued reduction in the future is that more and more people think that we can’t trust the states to carry it out,” Dunham concluded.

Tennessee Executes Mentally Ill and Sexually Abused Prisoner by Electrocution

Tennessee executed David Earl Miller (pictured at age 24) in the state’s electric chair on December 6, 2018, after Governor Bill Haslam denied his application for clemency and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to address the denials of his challenges to the constitutionality of Tennessee’s execution methods. Miller, a 61-year-old man with a significant history of mental illness who experienced extensive sexual and physical abuse as a child, opted to be executed by electric chair after the Tennessee Supreme Court denied other prisoners’ challenges to a three-drug lethal-injection process that Miller and his lawyers believed would result in an extended torturous death.

The Tennessee prisoners challenged the state’s three-drug lethal-injection process, seeking to replace it with execution with a single barbiturate, pentobarbital. Miller presented evidence that the three-drug protocol would result in approximately 18 minutes of unnecessary pain and suffering. He submitted an affidavit from one of the nation’s leading anesthesiologists that Billy Ray Irick “was aware and sensate” during his lethal-injection execution on October 11, 2018 “and would have experienced the feeling of choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive, and the burning sensation caused by the injection of the potassium chloride.” The prisoners’ challenge was rejected because Miller—prevented from obtaining critical information by Tennessee’s execution secrecy law—was unable to show that pentobarbital was readily available to the state. Miller elected to be executed in the electric chair, but argued that his choice of electrocution instead of lethal injection was coerced and that both methods were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. The lower courts ruled that Miller had waived his challenge to constitutionality of the electric chair by choosing it over lethal injection, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene. In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “electrocution can be a dreadful way to die,” but there was “credible scientific evidence that lethal injection as currently practiced in Tennessee may well be even worse.” It was “perverse,” she said, to require prisoners to prove that an alternative method was available to kill them. “Such madness should not continue.”

Miller was charged with murdering his intellectually-disabled girlfriend, Lee Standifer, in May 1981. He was 24 years old at the time. Miller’s attorneys submitted an 89-page clemency petition to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam detailing Miller’s upbringing and childhood abuse, including an instance in which Miller’s stepfather “knocked [Miller] out of a chair, hit him with a board, threw him into a refrigerator with such force it dented the refrigerator and bloodied [Miller’s] head, dragged him through the house by his hair, and twice ran [Miller’s] head through the wall.” Miller’s mother, who drank heavily while he was in utero, sexually abused Miller and forced him to have sex with her on at least three occasions. The document also noted that Miller attempted suicide two times before age ten. Governor Haslam denied the petition with a one-sentence statement: “After careful consideration of David Earl Miller’s clemency request, I am declining to intervene in this case.”

Following the execution, Miller’s lawyer Steve Kissinger said: “If any of you have been reading what we've been submitting to the governor, what we have been sending to the courts for the last 20 years you'll know that he cared deeply for Lee Standifer and she would be alive today if it weren't for a sadistic stepfather and a mother who violated every trust that a son should have. I came up here promising to tell you what we did here today, but I think maybe what I should be doing is ask you all that question. What is it that we did here today?”

Miller is the second death-row prisoner to be executed by electrocution in Tennessee this year. Edmund Zagorski, executed by electrocution on November 1, 2018, was the first. Miller’s last words were “beats being on death row.”

Execution Secrecy Takes a Hit in Court Proceedings in Indiana, Missouri

The execution process in Indiana and Missouri may become more transparent as a result of public-access lawsuits filed in the two states. In Indiana, a Marion County trial judge ruled on November 30, 2018 that the state must release pre-2017 records concerning the drugs obtained by the state for executions and the companies that produced them. Three days earlier, the ACLU of Missouri announced the settlement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of investigative journalist Chris McDaniel that ensured that the Missouri Department of Corrections could no longer retaliate against reporters or news outlets by excluding them from witnessing executions.

The Indiana ruling came in a public records suit brought by a lawyer, A. Katherine Toomey, in which Circuit Court Judge Sheryl Lynch had previously ordered the state to disclose documents on the details of Indiana’s execution protocol. To evade compliance with the court’s 2016 order, at 2 a.m. on the final day of the 2017 legislative session, the legislature inserted a two-page secrecy provision into the state 175-page budget bill. That provision exempted the records Toomey had sought from public disclosure. David Dickmeyer, arguing on behalf of the state, told Judge Lynch that the new law constituted a “special circumstance” requiring the court to change her prior ruling. The secrecy provision was necessary, he asserted, because releasing the records would subject the state’s drug supplier to “public shaming, public protests, hate mail and lawsuits.” Judge Lynch disagreed, writing, "The General Assembly may not change the result of [the public records] litigation. While other requests may be precluded by the Statute, blocking Toomey’s request after this Court had already ordered the Department to produce the documents violates ... Indiana’s Constitution.”

The Missouri litigation challenged the state’s procedure for designating execution witnesses, which granted the director of the Department of Corrections sole discretion to select media witnesses. McDaniel—who as a reporter for St. Louis Public Radio and then BuzzFeed News had exposed questionable conduct by the Missouri Department of Corrections and reported that the state’s previously secret drug supplier had committed more than 1,800 health and safety violations—had applied to be a media witness for 17 executions. The corrections department ignored the applications and provided no reason for refusing to select McDaniel as a witness. In announcing the settlement, the ACLU of Missouri, which represented McDaniel, said: “The government cannot give or deny access to a reporter based on government officials’ feelings about an individual’s reporting.” Under the settlement, media witnesses will now include reporters designated by the Associated Press, the Missouri Broadcaster’s Association, and the Missouri Press Association, along with a fourth reporter from a local agency. “Executing inmates is the most serious power state governments have,” said McDaniel. “And the public has a right to know the details of how the government is using that power.”

An op-ed by Los Angeles Times opinion writer Scott Martelle took issue with the secrecy surrounding recent U.S. executions. “Secrecy advocates argue that the drugmakers must remain in the shadows to keep opponents of the death penalty from protesting them,” wrote Martelle. “In other words, if the states can’t conduct the people’s business in secret, the people might rise in opposition to the business the state is conducting. So much for open governments and public accountability.” The op-ed cited McDaniel’s investigation of the safety violations committed by the compounding pharmacy that produces Texas’s lethal-injection drugs and DPIC’s report on secrecy, Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States. “Remember, executions are conducted in the name of the people, who have a right to know how the state performs the abominable act. This retreat into secrecy is an act of shame, not openness,” Martelle wrote.

Investigation Reveals Texas Obtained Possibly Tainted Execution Drugs from Pharmacy With Tainted Safety Record

For the past three-and-a-half years, Texas has purchased execution drugs from a Houston-based compounding pharmacy that, BuzzFeed News reports, “has been cited for scores of safety violations” and whose license to operate is currently on probation. In an exclusive story by investigative reporter Chris McDaniel, BuzzFeed discovered that Texas secretly obtained execution drugs from the Greenpark Compounding Pharmacy, a pharmacy that the Texas State Board of Pharmacy has cited for 48 violations in the past eight years, including “keeping out-of-date drugs in stock, using improper procedures to prepare IV solutions, and inadequate cleaning of hands and gloves.” Greenpark’s license was put on probation in November 2016 after it botched a prescription for three children, sending one of them to the hospital for emergency care. Instead of providing the children lansoprazole, a drug to treat high levels of stomach acid, the pharmacy gave them lorazepam, an anti-anxiety drug similar to Xanax. A pharmacy technician was found to have forged quality-control documents relating to the incident. Two hundred compounding pharmacies are currently licensed in Texas, and Greenpark is one of only eight whose license is on probation or revoked.

The discovery of Greenpark’s tainted safety history comes in the wake of suggestions by medical experts that the drugs used in recent Texas executions may have been outdated or impure. The last words of five of the eleven prisoners executed in Texas so far in 2018 indicated that they experienced burning after the execution drug, pentobarbital, was injected. Pentobarbital, an anesthetic, is intended to produce a painless execution. In January, as the state executed Anthony Shore, he called out, “I can feel that it does burn. Burning!” Juan Castillo, Troy Clark, Christopher Young, and Danny Bible all said the drug burned or hurt during their executions. A sixth prisoner, William Rayford, was observed writhing and shaking on the gurney after the drug injection. Dr. David Waisel, an anesthesiologist and Harvard Medical School professor, wrote in a 2016 affidavit, “Improper compounding and testing procedures may leave fine particles undetectable by the naked eye in the solution, or larger particles that would not be detected by an untrained eye. These particles can cause great irritation to the vein, resulting in extraordinary pain.”

Both Texas and Greenpark sought to keep the pharmacy’s identity secret, but BuzzFeed obtained documents showing that Texas sent the compounding pharmacy the raw ingredients for pentobarbital in April 2015 and February 2016. In June 2018, Greenpark submitted a declaration in a lethal-injection suit, using the pseudonym “Pharmacy X,” stating that its “decision to supply the Texas Department of Criminal Justice with lethal injection chemicals was and is contingent on Pharmacy X’s identity remaining secret.” The declaration asserted that “Pharmacy X will no longer conduct business with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice” if its identity is disclosed or revealed.

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