Opinion: A win for transparency in Missouri execution cases

The execution chamber at the Missouri Correctional Center. In a victory for transparency, a state judge has tossed out secrecy protections for the suppliers of the state's execution drugs.

The execution chamber at the Missouri Correctional Center. In a victory for transparency, a state judge has tossed out secrecy protections for the suppliers of the state’s execution drugs.


In an attempt to keep prying public eyes away from how prison systems obtain execution drugs, states across the country have dropped veils of secrecy over the procurement process, refusing to identify its lethal-injection drug sources under the argument that the providers deserved privacy because they were part of the execution team.

No, they aren’t.

A Missouri judge on Monday tossed out that state’s secrecy protection by drilling into the obvious: Just because you buy execution drugs from a pharmacy doesn’t mean the pharmacy is part of your execution team.

Under Missouri law, people “who administer or provide direct support for the administration of the lethal chemicals” in an execution are shielded from being identified publicly. That means prison guards, nurses, doctors, anesthesiologists or others in the execution chamber and involved in the execution.


Missouri, which is appealing the judge’s decision, sought to extend that definition of the execution team to include the people and businesses that supply the execution drugs. There may be defensible reasons for not identifying the people directly engaged in the execution itself, including protection against potential retaliation. Though it’s problematic that part of the impetus is to hide the identities of medical professionals taking part in executions to protect them from disclosure to professional organizations, such as the American Medical Assn., which see such participation as a violation of professional ethics.

But hiding the identities of the pharmacies is political, a desire to protect the businesses from public protest, and that’s an insufficient reason to keep any government record secret.

Over the last few years, as opposition to the death penalty has grown, pharmaceutical companies have withdrawn their products for use in executions, or stopped making them altogether, to avoid running afoul of European proscriptions against exporting drugs to be used in executions. So states have gone to absurd lengths to find alternative sources, including Missouri sending a corrections officer with $11,000 to neighboring Oklahoma to score some pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy not licensed to sell drugs in Missouri. Officials in Texas, Arizona and Nebraska turned to a shadowy importer to try to sneak the drugs in from India.

This is what states like Missouri are trying to hide: their own questionable actions in trying to fulfill death sentences. In fact, Oklahoma has halted its executions after it was discovered the state had used the wrong drug in at least one execution and was about to use it in another controversial case. Oklahoma has an execution-secrecy law, and one of the men killed with the wrong drug had sought to delay his execution so he could challenge the constitutionality of the state’s drug of choice. Turns out he may have had a point.

There are a lot of reasons the death penalty should go. Broadly, no state should be given the right to kill its own citizens. From a more practical standpoint, it’s an expensive process, serves no deterrence nor judicial goal, is state-sanctioned vengeance rather than justice, is applied unequally and disproportionately against people of color, is handed down in a judicial system too easily gamed by unscrupulous investigators and prosecutors (not to mention politicking judges), and it is at heart a barbaric act.

And capital punishment has become so contrary to American societal norms that here in the land of the quick buck, even the business world has turned its back on the practice.


But, to our shame, it’s still on the books in 31 states and within the federal and military court systems. If execution by lethal injection is a defensible exercise of government power, then it ought to be conducted as transparently as possible - especially given our history of not only botching the convictions, but also the executions.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.