Criminal Justice
 

State won’t release execution methods even though judge rejected concerns

Despite a federal magistrate’s ruling that the state can’t keep secret the procedures for carrying out executions, the state has refused to make those procedures public, denying this week a public-records request from The Lens.

The procedures initially were sought by two death-row inmates, one of whom successfully delayed his execution by saying he was entitled to know precisely how the state planned to kill him. The question arose because of a change in the chemical execution process caused by the recent shortage of one of the three drugs used.

The state Department of Public Safety and Corrections asked the federal court if it could give the protocols to the inmates’ attorneys, but keep it from being more widely distributed. Publicly releasing the protocols would  “raise serious security concerns,” the state’s attorneys argued in court pleadings.

But the judge quickly dismissed that reasoning, denying the state’s request to keep the protocols sealed.

“Defendants’ motion is not supported by any affidavit or other evidence providing even one example of improper interference with an execution caused by or related to the dissemination of the current or any previous Louisiana execution protocol, or which shows that the defendants’ security concerns and the asserted risk of manipulation are more than mere speculation or conjecture,” wrote Baton Rouge-based U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Riedlinger, in a ruling released June 4.

He ordered the state to turn over the protocol to the inmates’ attorneys, and the state complied. Those attorneys declined to give copies of the protocol to The Lens, citing reasons related to ongoing court cases, suggesting instead that the publication file a public records request.

In denying The Lens’ subsequent request for those documents, an attorney for the Corrections Department wrote:

“Predictably, the Department’s execution procedures, policies and guidelines that you request are directly related to the internal security of inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary; therefore, they are considered nonpublic.”

Corrections Department  lawyer Jacqueline Wilson said that the protocols “contain internal security information” – the very legal argument that Riedlinger brushed aside as a reason for secrecy.

“I’m concerned about the state’s lack of compliance with the clear intent of a federal judge’s ruling,” Lens editor Steve Beatty said. “The information is public or it’s not. As the saying goes, you can’t be a little bit pregnant.”

Beatty said The Lens is weighing its legal options.

Riedlinger’s ruling is connected with a federal lawsuit, in which death-row inmate Jessie Hoffman sued the state. Hoffman is sentenced to die for the 1996 kidnapping, rape and murder of advertising executive Mary “Molly” Elliot.

In February, death-row inmate and convicted child killer Christopher Sepulvado joined Hoffman’s suit. Sepulvado was convicted of torturing and murdering his 6-year-old stepson in 1992.

Both say that the principle of due process requires that they be fully informed how the state intends to execute them.

Louisiana isn’t the first state to try to keep the lethal injection process secret. In May, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado sued the state over the lack of transparency in its death-penalty policy.

Texas and Mississippi, by contrast, have disclosed the type and amount of the drug or drugs they use to induce the death of condemned prisoners.

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