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.

(Mark Alesia, Judge smacks legislature, says retroactive law doesn't prevent release of death penalty records, Indianapolis Star, November 30, 2018; ACLU of Missouri, MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS CHANGES POLICY FOR WITNESSING EXECUTIONS, November 27, 2018; Missouri Department of Corrections, Department Procedural Manual, Execution Witnesses, November 15, 2018; Scott Martelle, There's a shameful veil of secrecy surrounding state executions, Los Angeles Times, December 5, 2018.) See Lethal Injection and Secrecy.