All 17 States Carrying Out Recent Lethal Injections Withheld At Least Some Information About the Execution Process

(Washington, D.C.) The Death Penalty Information Center today released a new report, “Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States.” The intensive study documents the laws and policies that states have adopted to keep information about executions inaccessible to the public, to pharmaceutical companies, and to prisoners facing execution. Among the key findings:

  • Since January 2011, 13 states have enacted new secrecy statutes that conceal vital information about the execution process.
  • Of the 17 states that have carried out 246 lethal-injection executions between January 1, 2011 and August 31, 2018, all withheld at least some information about the execution process. All but one withheld information about the source of their execution drugs.
  • Fourteen states prevented witnesses from seeing at least some part of the execution. Fifteen prevented witnesses from hearing what was happening inside the execution chamber.
  • None of the 17 states guaranteed that witnesses knew when each drug was administered.

Botched or problematic executions have increased as states experiment with new drug combinations, including midazolam. In 2017, more than 60 percent of the executions carried out with midazolam produced eyewitness accounts of the execution going amiss.

The report found that, in their efforts to obtain execution drugs, states have used secrecy laws to conceal evidence that they have broken state and federal laws, deliberately induced contract breaches, lied to or misled legitimate drug suppliers, contracted with shady international suppliers and questionable domestic pharmacies, and swapped drugs with each other without proper storage and transport controls. State officials also have refused to answer questions about clearly botched executions and problems in executions caused by the use of inappropriate execution drugs, claiming secrecy privileges.

“Over and over again, states have violated the law in the name of carrying out the law,” DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham said. “When the public has uncovered information the states have tried to conceal, it has exposed an ever-expanding scope of misconduct and incompetence. ‘Trust me, I’m the Government’ is not an acceptable justification for execution secrecy.”

The DPIC report also found that secrecy laws have undermined the reliability and legitimacy of court proceedings in which prisoners have challenged state execution practices as violating the Constitution’s ban on cruel or unusual punishments. Recently, in litigation over the constitutionality of Tennessee’s lethal-injection drug combination, secrecy prevented the prisoners from demonstrating that the drug pentobarbital—already in use in several states—was available as an alternative to a three-drug combination that prisoners said would amount to eighteen minutes of torture. This led one prisoner to elect execution by electrocution instead of the three-drug injection. As one Tennessee Supreme Court justice wrote, the state’s refusal to provide information or answer questions as to the availability of pentobarbital rendered “the trial court proceedings [in the case] meaningless.”

Of particular note, several states obtain executions drugs from compounding pharmacies, which are not subject to the same regulations as large manufacturers, and conceal the identity of the pharmacy. Recent executions in South Dakota and Texas have raised questions—unanswered because of state secrecy—about the quality of drugs believed to have been produced or supplied by compounders. When the compounding pharmacies’ identities have been discovered in the past, the report said, that disclosure has also revealed significant issues about the safety or efficacy of the companies’ products.

The report concludes: “It is impossible to know whether current methods of execution are consistent with evolving standards of decency if methods are kept secret. When states hide information in a deliberate effort to keep the people ignorant, America looks less and less like the democratic society it was founded to be.”

“Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States” is available at…. The principal author of the report is Robin Konrad with editing by Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director, and Ngozi Ndulue, Director of Research and Special Projects.


The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. DPIC was founded in 1990 and prepares in-depth reports, issues press releases, conducts briefings for the media, and serves as a resource to those working on this issue.