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Shine Light on Executions Bookmark

The Columbus Dispatch

Editorial
on November 3, at 5:34 aM

Another execution. Another debacle. Another debate.

No undertaking by government ought to have greater transparency than the process by which government takes life in the name of justice.

This raises serious concerns about a federal judge’s order last week that allows the source of drugs used to carry out Ohio’s death penalty to remain shielded.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost upheld a state law, House Bill 663, passed hastily in December after officials couldn’t find a willing drug supplier. State officials concluded secrecy was the answer to drug manufacturers’ and compounding pharmacies’ concerns over morality and threats by protesters.

The law conceals the source of drugs and forever keeps confidential the names of execution-team members and physicians involved in the executions.

Since lethal injection is legal, Frost ruled, “it follows that there must be some manner of carrying it out.

But the new law has yet to goad drug suppliers into cooperating. Lacking available drugs, Gov. John Kasich has postponed all executions until 2017.

This delay is advantageous, giving attorneys for Death Row inmates time to appeal Frost’s ruling. They’ve argued that the law should be overturned because it illegally deprives people of access to government information and proceedings surrounding the death penalty.

No other action by the state has greater gravity and permanence than carrying out a death sentence, and this argues for it to be carried out with full transparency.

As Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said as H.B. 663 was pending: “We have an open-records laws that supposedly contains a strong presumption that records are open with rare exceptions.”

He noted that Ohioans had seen no evidence that threats to drug suppliers “rise above normal types of protests that citizens are entitled to mount against businesses that do controversial things. Nor have we seen documentation as to why the existing laws against threats and intimidation aren’t good enough.”

The drug-secrecy law is especially egregious in light of Ohio’s execution failures. In January 2014, Dennis McGuire choked, gasped and struggled for more than 10 minutes while being executed with a new drug combination never before used in this country. Another killer, Romell Broom, is suing to stop Ohio’s second attempt to put him to death: In 2009, state prison officials botched their two-hour-long effort to insert intravenous needles to deliver the fatal drugs.

There are many valid reasons to consider abandoning the death penalty: Some of those condemned have been exonerated by DNA evidence or the real killer’s confession. The process is costly and time-consuming; Broom killed his victim in 1984; McGuire, in 1989. And companies that sell life-saving and life-improving drugs don’t want to be associated with the execution trade.

But Frost’s ruling adds another important objection: The new law shields the source of lethal-injection drugs for state executions, closing vital public records and stifling transparency (and, ever so handy, public criticism).

If government is going to kill on behalf of its citizens, the public needs to be able to scrutinize government’s actions — from the open criminal trial to the source of drugs used to carry out the death sentence — to determine that constitutional rights were upheld and that the state’s actions were carried out humanely and competently.