Lethal Injection

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.

Kentucky Joins States With No Executions for at Least Ten Years

On November 21, 2018, Kentucky marked 10 years since its last execution, becoming the eleventh current death-penalty state that has not carried out an execution in more than a decade. Another 20 states have legislatively or judicially abolished their death-penalty laws, bringing the number of states that do not actively use the death penalty to 31. On the day before Kentucky reached its 10-year milestone, a lawsuit filed in federal court highlighted some of the greatest dangers of capital punishment in the Commonwealth. On November 20, Nickie Miller—a military veteran and cancer patient who spent two years in jail facing a possible death sentence before murder charges against him were dropped in 2017—filed a lawsuit against Montgomery County, Kentucky and local and state law enforcement officials alleging that they had conspired to frame him for murder.

Miller’s complaint names six people involved in his investigation and prosecution as defendants: Montgomery County Sheriff Fred Shortridge, Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Keith Craycraft, Detectives Ralph Charles Jr. and Mark Collier, county jailer Eric Jones, and Kentucky State Police Polygraph Examiner John Fyffe. The complaint alleges that the defendants fabricated and destroyed evidence, testified falsely, and coerced a woman into falsely implicating Miller by threatening to take her children unless she provided the statement they wanted. It specifically claims that Fyffe and the sheriff’s officers “conspired to take [Miller’s] liberty by knowingly initiating false charges based on evidence that the Defendants fabricated.” According to the complaint, the alleged misconduct “had a profound impact” on Miller’s health, denying him “proper medical treatment [for his cancer], including chemotherapy, while incarcerated.” “The defendants succeeded in manipulating the justice system for several years, including falsely accusing Mr. Miller of capital murder and seeking the death penalty against a clearly innocent man,” defense investigator Joshua Powell said. “Mr. Miller has suffered tremendous damage, mental suffering, cancer recurrence and loss of a normal life, all caused by the defendants’ misconduct.”

Kentucky has imposed 97 death sentences since reinstating the death penalty in 1975. More than half (49) of those convictions or sentences have been overturned, including the conviction of Larry Osborne, who was exonerated in 2002. Two of the three men executed in Kentucky waived some or all of their appeals, “essentially committing legal suicide,” said Damon Preston, a Public Advocate at the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. Preston also said that Kentucky’s death penalty system deprives families of closure: “It’s hard to see how the family would get resolution when the cases go on for so long. But the reason cases go on for so long is because the death penalty in Kentucky doesn’t work. If a defendant is sentenced to life without parole, that defendant gets an appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court and then the case is essentially over.” Executions in Kentucky have been under a judicial hold since 2010, as a result of challenges to the lethal-injection protocol. The Attorney General’s Office is scheduled to file its brief in the lethal-injection case on November 30, but additional hearings and briefing are expected before the court issues a ruling in the case.

Tennessee Supreme Court Sets Six Execution Dates for 2019 and 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court has set execution dates for six men on the state's death row, scheduling their executions for between May 16, 2019 and April 9, 2020. This mass execution schedule, issued on November 16, 2018, comes in the wake of the controversial executions of Billy Ray Irick and Edmund Zagorski earlier this year and as the state prepares to execute David Earl Miller on December 6. If all seven scheduled executions take place, Tennessee will have conducted more executions in a two-year period than it had in the rest of the 45-year modern era of the death penalty.

Prior to Irick's August 9, 2018 execution, Tennessee had carried out only six executions since bringing back the death penalty in February 1974, all of them between 2000 and 2009. Tennessee's execution method and the state supreme court's handling of lethal-injection litigation has come under criticism, as a newly constituted conservative court majority permitted prison officials to refuse to provide evidence of their claimed efforts to obtain an alternative execution drug, expedited its consideration of death-row state prisoners' challenge to the state three-drug lethal-injection protocol to facilitate Zagorski’s execution, and refused to consider medical evidence concerning Irick’s reportedly torturous execution.

Irick was executed over scathing dissents from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who called it “barbarism,” and Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee, who criticized the state's “rush to execute” and said that the state’s evasion of questions concerning the availability of pentobarbital as an alternative to execution with the state’s three-drug formula had rendered the trial court proceedings in the case “meaningless.” Lee later blasted the “rocket docket” created by the court’s removal of the prisoners’ lethal-injection challenge from an intermediate appeals court so the high court could decide the case before Zagorski's scheduled execution. “Given the gravity of the issues presented in this appeal, the voluminous record to be reviewed, and the legal analysis to be made, the [court’s] super-expedited schedule is wholly inadequate,” she wrote.

Autopsy reports from Irick’s execution became available after the court established its expedited schedule. Edmund Zagorski’s defense lawyers then provided the court with an affidavit from a prominent medical expert who concluded that Irick had not been properly anesthetized, leaving him “aware and sensate during his execution.” Irick “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 doctor wrote. After hearing argument, the court refused to consider that medical evidence and upheld the execution protocol. Zagorski then opted to be executed by electrocution. His attorney said of the decision, “[Tennessee] has coerced Mr. Zagorski — with the threat of extreme chemical torture via a barbaric three-drug lethal injection protocol — to choose to die a painful and gruesome death in the electric chair.” The day before the new execution dates were announced, a federal judge denied a stay request from David Earl Miller, who had sought execution by firing squad as an alternative to the three-drug lethal injection.

DPIC Releases New Report, “Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States”

The Death Penalty Information Center has released a major new report, Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States, examining the scope and consequences of secrecy in the application of the death penalty in the United States. The report, released on November 20, 2018, tells the story of the expansion of execution secrecy and the questionable practices that states have attempted to keep from public view. It details how, 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. As a result, an increasing number of executions have been botched: in 2017, more than 60% of executions carried out with midazolam produced eyewitness accounts of the execution going amiss. The report also describes how 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. “State officials have suppressed information that could prove prisoners’ claims while simultaneously arguing those claims should be rejected because they are unproven,” the report explains. “Over and over again, states have violated the law in the name of carrying out the law,” DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham said. “And 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.”

Supreme Court Hears Argument in Missouri Lethal-Injection Case

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on November 6, 2018 in Bucklew v. Precythe on whether the use of lethal injection to execute a Missouri prisoner with a rare medical condition would cause him unnecessary and excruciating pain and suffering and whether he was constitutionally required to provide the state with a different way for it to kill him. Media reports suggested that the Court was sharply divided on the issue with newly appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh likely to provide the deciding vote. 

Russell Bucklew (pictured) suffers from cavernous hemangioma, a rare disorder that has caused blood-filled tumors to form, primarily in his head, neck, and mouth. Doctors have said that an execution by lethal injection could cause those tumors to rupture, causing him excruciating pain as he dies from suffocation and drowning in his own blood. Justice Kavanaugh, in his first question in his first death-penalty case since joining the Court, asked Missouri Solicitor General D. John Sauer, "Are you saying even if the method creates gruesome and brutal pain you can still do it because there’s no alternative?" When Kavanaugh pressed Sauer for a direct answer, Missouri's solicitor said yes, so long as the state did not "attempt to deliberately inflict pain for the sake of pain." 

Bucklew challenged the requirement, announced in the Court's 2015 lethal-injection decision in Glossip v. Gross, that prisoners who are challenging the cruelty of a state's execution method must offer an alternative method of execution that is reasonably available to the state. Nonetheless, to comply with the requirement, Bucklew proposed asphyxiation by nitrogen gas. Chief Justice John Roberts seemed skeptical of that proposal, asking "how can it be a reasonable alternative if it's never been used before? ... Things can go wrong regardless of the method of execution. It seems to me that if you have a method that no state has ever used, that that danger is magnified." Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has raised serious concerns about lethal injection in past cases, questioned the legitimacy of the Court's requirement that prisoners who challenge execution methods must present an alternative method. “I don’t actually know where in the Eighth Amendment and its history the court made up this alternative remedy idea,” she said, “because the Constitution certainly doesn’t prohibit cruel and unusual punishment unless we can’t kill you at all.”

Missouri has set execution dates for Bucklew twice, but both dates were stayed as a result of legal challenges to the execution method. Public health experts and the Association for Accessible Medicines (AAM)—a professional association representing generic and biosimilar drug manufacturers and distributors—filed amicus briefs in Bucklew's case, calling the planned use of "essential medicines" in executions "medically irresponsible," and warning of public health risks caused by states' efforts to obtain lethal-injection drugs.

Attorneys Challenge Tennessee's “Utterly Barbaric” Planned Use of Electric Chair

As Edmund Zagorski faces a November 1, 2018 execution in Tennessee, the courts have required him to choose between death by lethal injection and electrocution. His lawyers argue that both methods, as well as the forced choice between the two, are unconstitutional. In a lawsuit filed in federal district court on October 26, 2018 and appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on October 30, Zagorski’s attorney, Kelley Henry, wrote of electrocution, “while better than lethal injection, such a death is still utterly barbaric,” alleging that it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit claims that Tennessee’s electric chair is “incompetently designed,” and that Zagorski will suffer as electrocution “burns Mr. Zagorski’s skin from his skull, boils his blood and fails to promptly stop his heart and brain function.” Describing Tennessee’s three-drug midazolam-based execution as one in which “the prisoner [will feel] as if he is ‘drowning, suffocating, and being burned alive from the inside out’ during a process that could last as long as 18 minutes,” Henry argues that the state “has coerced Mr. Zagorski — with the threat of extreme chemical torture via a barbaric three-drug lethal injection protocol — to choose to die a painful and gruesome death in the electric chair.”

Henry also argues that Tennessee has unconstitutionally forced Zagorski to choose between execution by lethal injection with midazolam and death by electrocution, while employing state secrecy laws to prevent him from obtaining information necessary to prove that a less painful one-drug lethal injection with pentobaritol was available. Quoting Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s dissent from the Supreme Court’s October 11 refusal to hear Zagorski’s prior lethal-injection challenge, Zagorski argued “‘[w]hen the prisoners tasked with asking the State to kill them another way are denied by the State information crucial to establishing the availability of that other means of killing, a grotesque requirement has become Kafkaesque as well.’”

Zagorski’s execution was originally scheduled for October 11, but Governor Bill Haslam issued a temporary reprieve to give prison officials time to prepare for an execution by electric chair. On October 29, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger rejected Zagorski’s challenge to the electric chair, but issued a temporary restraining order preventing the execution from going forward unless the state provides his lawyers with access to a telephone to contact the court if something goes wrong during the execution. On October 31, Zagorski filed a motion for stay of execution in the federal appeals court and both sides filed briefs on the constitutionality of Tennessee’s electrocution protocol. It is expected that whichever side loses in the appeals court will seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

A February 2015 poll conducted by YouGuv found that Americans, by a 21 percentage-point margin (54% vs. 33%), consider the electric chair cruel and unusual punishment. The states that used the electric chair moved to lethal injection in the wake of several gruesomely botched electrocutions, decisions by the Georgia and Nebraska Supreme Courts declaring electric-chair executions unconstitutional, and a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision agreeing to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of Florida’s use of the electric chair. That challenge was later rendered moot when Florida abandoned executions by electrocution. Tennessee last carried out an execution in its electric chair in 2007.

Governor Rejects Jurors’ Plea for Clemency for Edmund Zagorski as Tennessee Court Allows Lethal Injections to Proceed

Ignoring declarations by six jurors in Edmund Zagorski’s 1984 trial that they would have spared Zagorski (pictured) if they could have sentenced him to life without parole, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam rejected Zagorski’s petition for clemency on October 5, 2018. In conjunction with the Tennessee Supreme Court's October 8 ruling upholding the constitutionality of the state's lethal-injection protocol, Haslam’s decision moved the state closer to executing Zagorski on October 11. At the time of Zagorski’s trial, Tennessee law required jurors in death-penalty cases to choose between sentencing a defendant to death or risk the possibility that he could later be released on parole. The jurors in Zagorski’s case submitted sworn declarations in support of clemency, saying that they would have sentenced him to life without possibility of parole, rather than the death penalty, if they had been given the no-parole option. Juror Michael Poole told Nashville Scene, “Our concern was that at some point in time maybe this man would be released and could actually be out in society and commit such a crime again. ... [Zagorski] has paid a significant price up to this point, I feel, and the continuation of his imprisonment until he dies of natural causes I think is punishment enough.” Nancy Arnold, another juror, agreed. “[A]s far as the law was concerned, all we could do was what we did. We had no choice of life without parole. I would have definitely done that if it had been available.” Zagorski’s clemency plea was also supported by correctional officials who said he has been a model prisoner and has reformed during his 34 years on death row. Despite those statements, Gov. Haslam denied clemency, writing that “the jury in Zagorski’s case heard the evidence at trial and rendered a unanimous verdict in accordance with the law at the time and their duty as jurors. Ten courts, including the Tennessee Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the United States, have reviewed and upheld the jury’s verdict and sentence, and the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that the addition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option does not affect previous verdicts.” The Tennessee Supreme Court on October 8 also removed a hurdle to Zagorski’s execution, ruling 4-1 that Tennessee's lethal-injection protocol is constitutional, and that prisoners did not prove an alternative was available, as required. In response to that ruling, Zagorski requested that the state execute him with the electric chair, saying, “I do not want to be subjected to the torture of the current lethal injection method.” In a statement, Zagorski’s lawyer, assistant federal defender Kelley Henry, said the Tennessee high court decision had left Zagorski to choose between “two unconstitutional methods of execution.” Describing the prospect of “10-18 minutes of drowning, suffocation, and chemical burning” as “unspeakable,” Henry said Zagorski found the electric chair to be “the lesser of two evils.” Zagorski is appealing the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision.

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