SPJ president-elect Paul Fletcher has been following the Virginia legislature as it debates the merits of making the execution process more secretive in that state. Senate Bill 1393 was passed by the Senate, and is now being considered by the House of Delegates. Fletcher offers this editorial, originally posted on Virginia Lawyers Weekly where he is the publisher and editor-in-chief:
The Virginia House of Delegates will have the chance to cure a mistake by the Senate: The House can and should reject a bill that would shroud the Virginia execution process in secrecy and darkness.
Senate Bill 1393, filed by Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, allows the state Department of Corrections to contract with any “external entity” to compound the drugs used for execution by lethal injection.
But a provision of this bill exempts the contracting process, the identity of any providers and the drug components used for execution from the Freedom of Information Act.
Saslaw told the Senate Courts of Justice Committee last week that the bill was prompted by difficulty getting the lethal drugs from overseas manufacturers. Virginia and other states that execute by lethal injection have faced shortages of the compounds needed to complete the process.
And manufacturers, which have been the targets of protests and pressure from anti-death penalty groups, apparently want the black-out. A Department of Corrections spokeswoman told The Washington Post that the measure would give drug manufacturers “security” from “harassment, threats or danger.”
Seems like there are less extreme ways to protect companies from protests than turning out the lights on the whole process.
If there is any solace to be taken, Saslaw’s original bill was worse – the whole process would have been secret. A condemned person, or his or her family, could not find out the details about the state-imposed death. But an amendment took out wording that would have exempted from FOIA all information relating to the execution process, including details of the buildings used during an execution and all records about the equipment used.
SB 1393 squeaked through Senate Courts by a 7-6 vote and passed the full Senate 23-14. After crossover day Feb. 11, it is in the hands of the House.
This isn’t the first attempt to take lethal injection execution out of public view: A similar measure was introduced in the Ohio legislature, and worked its way to passage in December, despite protests about the secrecy of the process. The new law now is being challenged in federal court in that state.
Although he is a Catholic opposed to the death penalty, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is backing SB 1393. Support has been bipartisan.
Richmond lawyer Craig Merritt testified at the Senate Courts meeting on behalf of the Virginia Press Association, and he has it right: “What this is doing, is placing it on very separate footing from pretty much anything else the Commonwealth or its subdivisions procure.”
Merritt added, “It puts a blanket over how we get this, what we spend for it, who is providing it. That is a serious concern when it comes to transparency.”
The state has no more grave or solemn duty than ending the life of someone for crimes so heinous that they warrant the death penalty. The execution process should not be fogged by secrecy.
We urge members of the House of the Delegates to reject this bill.