Criminal Justice

Bill that would hide sources of lethal-injection drugs now heads to Senate floor

A Senate committee approved a bill Tuesday that would conceal information about lethal injection drugs and allow prison officials to buy them from unlicensed, out-of-state suppliers.

Sponsored by state Rep. Joseph P. Lopinto III, R-Metairie, the bill would keep confidential the name, address and other identifiers “of any person or entity that manufactures, compounds, prescribes, dispenses, supplies or administers” execution drugs.

The information would not only be shielded from Louisiana’s Public Records law, but would be inadmissible as evidence or discovery in any kind of court “or before any tribunal, board agency or person.”

A judiciary committee amended the bill to allow the state corrections department to obtain drugs from suppliers outside Louisiana even if they are not licensed to do business in the state. The supplier still would have to be licensed in its home state.

Currently, Louisiana law prohibits a pharmacy from dispensing drugs in the state unless it is licensed by the state pharmacy board.

The committee unanimously approved the bill, sending it to the floor of the Senate for a vote. The bill already has passed the House.

Lopinto said that he was attempting to “relieve pressure” on suppliers and manufacturers of execution drugs. Nationwide, death-penalty states face dwindling lethal injection supplies and are increasingly turning to alternative suppliers such as compounding pharmacies.

The same thing has happened in Louisiana, where the state’s pentobarbital supply expired and the state has had trouble finding a replacement. The state corrections agency has considered a compounding pharmacy unlicensed to do business in Louisiana.

If the sources of the execution drugs are concealed from the public, Lopinto said, the companies “don’t get any additional pressure on them.”

Sitting next to Lopinto was Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc, who added that the secrecy bill was the most “humane” way to put inmates to death.

“This is not about being secret,” LeBlanc said. “We’re trying to obviously protect the people involved in executions and at the same time be more humane.”

He added that the state of Texas had a proven track record of using pentobarbital, and that the secrecy bill would allow department officials to obtain that drug rather than “developing cocktails” that may cause problems during an execution.

“We’ve kind of been pushed into a corner with this, and all we’re trying to do is be humane about this process,” he said.

Steve Beatty, editor of The Lens, countered that the nature of the death penalty calls for an open and transparent government process.

“I would like to see that when our state carries out the most severe penalty possible, that it is done with the greatest oversight and opportunity for review and accountability possible,” Beatty said.

The state of Louisiana, he argued, has no responsibility to shield drug manufacturers or pharmacies from opponents.

“It is not the responsibility of the state to shield any particular business or any particular industry from closer inspection or from the thoughts of your own constituents who wish to exercise their First Amendment rights,” he said.

“There are plenty of businesses that do plenty of things that people think are lousy, and we all have a chance to speak up and address that.”

Beatty said The Lens has already had trouble procuring lethal injection documents that are supposed to be public record under current law.

Sidney Garmon, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the bill would prevent the state from investigating a botched execution, such as a recent one in Oklahoma.

“If House Bill 328 was a law in Oklahoma, an investigation couldn’t be done, because records wouldn’t be available,” Garmon said. “We have organizations keep records to maintain efficiency, to uphold standards and to demand accountability.”

Before it was a bill about lethal injection secrecy, HB 328 called for the return of the electric chair. In Tennessee, a law was passed recently to allow for the electric chair if lethal injection was unavailable.

Lopinto, however, said he wants to see how other states fare with alternatives to lethal injection before making them law in Louisiana.

“I pulled my original bill back to let other states be the guinea pig, to see what they’re going to do,” Lopinto said, “and, you know, see where we actually have to follow suit.”

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