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Mark Mahoney's Your Right to Know
by Mark Mahoney

Your Right to Know

A Daily Gazette opinion blog
An interactive forum for readers on open government issues.

Death cocktails a secret in some states

There was an interesting sideline to the botched execution of Oklahoma murderer Clayton Lockett earlier this week involving his right to know the chemicals being used in his lethal injection.
The execution -- in which the inmate was reportedly convulsing and gasping for about 45 minutes before eventually dying of a heart attack -- raises some ethical questions that could affect other cases involving inmate rights and perhaps the fate of the death penalty itself in the United States.
Lawyers for two Oklahoma death row inmates had argued that information about the content and source of the three-drug cocktail used in executions there should be released because the knowledge could help them determine whether the inmates were being subjected to "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment.
Oklahoma is one state that doesn't reveal the ingredients. Georgia is another. Other states, including Texas, Louisiana and Missouri, won't reveal any information about the supplier of the drugs.
The state's attorney general argued that inmates had no more right to know the contents of the lethal injections than they had the right to know the brand of rope used in a hanging. More to the point, they argued that releasing the details would subject manufacturers to public scrutiny and possible abuse, and could produce a flurry of frivolous legal actions by defense attorneys that would disrupt the execution process.
A game of political ping-pong among state and federal courts in Oklahoma ensued over jurisdiction in the case and over the state's "secrecy provision" that requires the state to keep secret the identities of suppliers of any drugs or medical equipment related to executions.
The courts eventually lifted a stay on Lockett's execution, which led to Tuesday's debacle.
States offer several justifications for keeping the lethal-injection recipes secret. Some drugs used in executions, for example, are made in other countries and are banned for exportation to the U.S. for use in executions. Some manufacturers in the U.S. won't allow their drugs to be used for executions. In some cases, there's a shortage of a particularly sought-after drug because it's needed for other medical uses like surgeries. That has helped create a black market for execution drugs, some of which are obtained by states through questionable channels and at great expense. And some drug combinations, like the one used Tuesday, haven't been tested thoroughly for their effectiveness. The state, therefore, has a stake in keeping that information secret.
Knowing the makeup of the drug cocktail might raise legitimate questions about which drugs should be used in executions and whether there actually is a chemical or a combination of chemicals that can meet the criteria for a legal execution.
The implications of this debate could be far-reaching. I suspect this issue isn't going away anytime soon.
What do you think? Should states be required to release information about execution chemicals? Why or why not? Post a comment, or contact me at
Mark Mahoney

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