The American Civil Liberties Union and four newspapers have asked a federal judge to unseal court records in an attempt to learn where Pennsylvania corrections officials purchased the drugs that will be used to execute a death row inmate later this month, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.
The state chapter of the ACLU, The Guardian, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Philadelphia City Paper are asking state courts to unseal documents that would reveal how, and from whom, the state obtained the drugs it plans to use to execute Hubert Michael Jr. on Sept. 22, according to court papers.
The suit also seeks to grant the public access to documents about the suppliers of drugs used in future state executions.
“In light of the recent string of horrifically botched executions, the public is entitled to know how the state obtained the drugs they plan to use to carry out executions here in Pennsylvania,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU, said in a statement.
An email sent to the Department of Corrections seeking comment was not immediately returned.
Michael pleaded guilty to gunning down 16-year-old Trista Eng in 1994, but later tried to withdraw his plea, and has repeatedly appealed his conviction and death sentence. His execution would be the first in Pennsylvania in 15 years, according to the ACLU.
The Pennsylvania lawsuit comes in the wake of a series of botched executions that have escalated the national debate over the use of the death penalty and the drugs most states employ when executing death row inmates.
Oklahoma officials used a sedative known as midazolam for the first time as part of the lethal cocktail used to execute Clayton Lockett in April, and it took 43 minutes for the convicted murderer to die.
Despite witness statements that Lockett was writhing in pain as he died, a state report later defended the execution and blamed the miscue on a malfunctioning intravenous line, not the drugs. Joseph Wood also suffered a similar experience when he was put to death in Arizona in July.
Many states have struggled to obtain phenobarbital, a common ingredient in lethal injection cocktails, as foreign pharmaceutical companies have publicly derided the use of the product in executions.
In Pennsylvania, the newspapers were denied access to information about the drug suppliers under a court order which ruled the Department of Corrections only had to turn over that information to a death row inmate's attorneys under a strict confidentiality agreement.
“If the drugs are not made properly, they will not work properly, and the public should be very concerned about that possibility given the gruesome executions we have heard about in other states,” Mary Catherine Roper, senior staff attorney at the state's ACLU, said in the statement.
Michael's execution is currently stayed because of an unrelated matter, according to the ACLU. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is also the subject of a class-action lawsuit that contends its death penalty practices are unconstitutional.
According to the ACLU statement, that lawsuit argues that the state's supply of pentobarbital is not up to industry standards, and causes inmates to experience extreme pain and suffering during executions.
There are currently 184 people on death row in Pennsylvania, according to state records.
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