Update: On Thursday afternoon, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Gail S. Tusan granted a stay of Hill’s execution, concluding, among other things, that the Georgia “state secrets” law “implicated” the First Amendment by blocking information she deemed “essential to the determination of the efficacy and potency of lethal injection drugs.” Georgia officials immediately vowed to appeal the ruling.
The pending execution of a cognitively disabled man in Georgia has brought to national light a new law there that has profound first amendment implications for journalists covering death penalty cases.
The so-called “Lethal Injection Secrecy Act,” passed in March, makes the identities of those companies and individuals who make and supply lethal injection drugs a “state secret” that may be shielded from disclosure to the public, the media, or even the judiciary. As a result of the measure, information about the purity and potency of the drugs that are to be used to carry out executions in the state are beyond the public’s reach. So are the identities of the doctors hired by the state to oversee executions.
The shield law was enacted at the request of the state’s Department of Corrections after Georgia officials were roundly criticized in 2011 and 2012 for seeking lethal injection drugs from unlicensed sources as they scrambled to replace diminishing supplies. In 2011, for example, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized Georgia’s supply of “lethal injection” drugs because of federal concerns about how those drugs were obtained by state officials. The measure also directly benefits the dwindling number of pharmaceutical companies that produce and distribute the lethal drugs and that have been the subject of protests and boycotts for their role in the increasingly controversial practice of lethal injections.
The Injection Secrecy Act came into effect on July 1 and was immediately invoked by state officials in the case of Warren Hill, a convicted murderer who claims he cannot be executed because he is “mentally retarded” (a legal term of art) and thus falls within the protections of Atkins v. Virginia. In that 2002 United States Supreme Court decision, the justices, by a vote of 6-3, declared that executing the mentally disabled violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment. Georgia officials waited until the Injection Secrecy law was in effect, then scheduled Hill’s execution for July 15, relying on the new law to shield from Hill’s attorneys material information about the drugs to be used in Hill’s execution.
Last week, after Hill’s execution had been set for this past Monday, state officials revealed to his lawyers that they “had entered into agreements with an unknown compounding pharmacy and an unknown prescriber of drugs in order to procure pentobarbital,” a lethal drug to be used in Hill’s execution. But state officials, citing the new law, refused to provide any information about the identities or professional qualifications of the supplier or prescriber (or any information about the drug itself). So, on Monday, the day Hill was supposed to be given the lethal dose, his attorneys went to court in Fulton County, GA, seeking to enjoin the execution on the grounds that the Injection Secrecy law violates the Eighth Amendment and separation-of-powers principles. “Without any information regarding the origin or makers of the drug the Department of Corrections is planning to use to execute him,” the lawyers said, “Mr. Hill is left with no means for determining whether the drugs for his lethal injection are safe and will reliably perform their function, or if they are tainted, counterfeited, expired, or compromised in some other way.”
The trial judge delayed the execution, at least until Thursday, when she will continue to hear argument over the new state law. Nothing the State (or a state) does more profoundly impacts the public interest than when it seeks to take a life. Nowhere is the media’s interest in transparency and accountability more important than in capital cases. Hill’s lawyers did not challenge the law on First Amendment grounds. But it won’t be long before such a challenge is made to a law that so tangibly impairs the freedom of the press to report on matters of life and death.
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