In a case that could have far-reaching effects for several U.S. states that continue to practice the death penalty, Oklahoma County district court Judge Patricia Parrish struck down a secrecy provision that conceals the sources of the state’s execution drugs. She argued that the provision violated the rights articulated under the state constitution, creating a clear legal precedent for states with similar laws. While she didn’t take on the death penalty itself, she did strike a resounding blow against the mechanics of the state’s death penalty, making it that much more difficult to execute people.
The issue came before the court through a suit from two inmates, Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner, both due to be executed in April. The men argued that they had a right to know the source of the drugs used in their executions, given the gruesome death of inmate Dennis McGuire in Ohio earlier this year. McGuire reportedly gasped and showed obvious signs of distress during his execution, indicating that something had gone wrong with the protocol, or that the drugs used contained impurities.
This is a growing concern as a number of drug manufacturers refuse to supply drugs to the prison system for use in executions. European companies argue that they’re uncomfortable with the use of their medications given that their home nations don’t have the death penalty, while others have either moral or safety concerns; some claim they’ve been subject to threats, pressure and public abuse for selling drugs to the prison system. Consequently, inmates are growing concerned about where execution drugs are coming from, and whether they’re both pure and safe to use. To make things worse, many doctors and anesthesiologists are refusing to participate in executions, meaning that they are conducted by inadequately trained personnel who can’t identify the signs of medical distress and may be botching the executions they perform.
Several states, like Oklahoma, ban the disclosure of information about their drug sources, including in court. Judge Parrish determined that this was a violation of the state’s constitution, as it created a “veil of secrecy” surrounding the execution process. Her decision to strike down that provision of the law didn’t alter the men’s death sentences, but it did send a clear message to the state that it needs to be transparent about the source of its execution drugs. It’s a message that will undoubtedly spread to inmates in other states looking to challenge the structure of execution laws and the criminal justice system, as the argument could be used to question existing privacy protections in other states.
It could also contribute to the ongoing fight against the death penalty in the United States. The decreasing supply of execution drugs is already making it harder for states to plan executions, and without privacy protections, more companies are likely to refuse to supply drugs. This may make it functionally impossible to perform lethal injections, and it could be yet another nail in the coffin of the death penalty. That’s good news for death penalty opponents, who are always seeking new angles and arguments to end the practice forever in the United States and beyond.
Photo credit: Ken Piorkowski.