Prevent secrecy in executions

The state Senate shouldn’t pass a bill preventing public disclosure of drugs used in lethal injections

A bill that would allow the state to prevent public disclosure of information regarding lethal-injection executions has passed through the Senate Courts of Justice Committee and will now be considered by the state Senate.

According to The Richmond Times-Dispatch, this bill would protect from public disclosure the identities of the companies producing drugs used in lethal injection, the identities of the pharmacies compounding the drugs, the names of the drugs and their concentration. The immediate basis for this bill is the reluctance of companies to attach their names to the practice of lethal injection. If companies’ identities are disclosed, fewer will provide the state with lethal injection drugs, leaving the state with no clear path forward with its pending executions, currently eight in number. European suppliers have recently stopped providing states with lethal injection drugs, perhaps sparking this proposal.

But the element of the bill that has no clear basis is the prevention of the type and concentration of drugs from becoming public knowledge. Enshrouding the practice of lethal injection in secrecy will make it difficult for the public to know whether inmates are being subjected to faulty or painful drugs and will prevent us from effectively determining whether current execution practices are acceptable. Such secrecy will also prevent us from determining whether these practices are legal, as determining what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment requires knowledge of what exactly the punishment is that’s being inflicted.

Lethal injection has proven to be a complex and controversial practice. In many cases, inmates have demonstrated the process has been unnecessarily difficult for them, with some executions taking excessively long and some involving profound physical pain (in an Arizona execution this past summer, the inmate gasped 660 times during his execution, which took a full 90 minutes). While a majority of Americans support the death penalty, the exact implementation of that penalty is often debated. But how can citizens expect to debate the merits of a particular implementation — or even the merits of the death penalty itself — if they don’t have access to basic information?

Perhaps that is the very reason proponents of the bill would opt to hide such information. Doing so makes it harder to maintain acceptable standards for particular elements of executions, preventing news organizations from investigating lethal injection practices and thereby making it easier to execute inmates without external scrutiny.

The reality of the pharmaceutical industry is such that real or useful information about these drugs may in many cases lead to the identification of the companies that produce them. But if the alternative is total secrecy, transparency is ultimately more important than preserving companies’ public image.

As the bill stands now, it has garnered bipartisan support and even the support of the McAuliffe administration. But Del. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, best identifies the problems with this legislation. When speaking to The Washington Post, Surovell said, “Whenever the government is putting a human being to death, we ought to. . . make sure it’s done humanely, properly and with as much dignity as possible for such a thing.” With this bill, we will not necessarily be able to do that.

Drug shortages are a growing problem for states that choose to impose the death penalty via lethal injection, and in Virginia a measure to require death by electrocution in the face of a drug shortage failed, leaving lethal injection as the primary option. But drug shortages should not lead to the use of drugs that would put inmates in pain or otherwise make their executions inhumane — and the state will have the ability to do this if it isn’t held accountable to its citizens. Information is the key to accountability — and nowhere is accountability more important than in the handling of human lives.

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