ST. LOUIS —
Dating to the days when the guillotine operator or the hangman wore a mask, a certain amount of anonymity has always surrounded executions. But that secrecy is increasingly coming under fire, with judges, death penalty opponents and lawyers questioning why so little can be known about a state’s most solemn responsibility.
An Associated Press survey of the 32 death penalty states found that the vast majority refuse to disclose the source of their execution drugs. The states cloaked in secrecy include some with the most active death chambers — among them Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and Missouri.
Most states have recently begun relying on loosely regulated “compounding pharmacies” for execution drugs but refuse to name them, citing concerns about backlash that could endanger the supplier’s safety. But many states refuse to provide even more basic information — how much of the drug is on hand, the expiration date, how it is tested. Those who question the secrecy wonder how an inmate’s constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment can be guaranteed if nothing is known about the drug being used to kill him.
“As far as we know, it could be coming from a veterinary source, it could be coming from some dark corner of the Internet,” said Cheryl Pilate, a Kansas City, Mo., attorney who handles death row appeals. “We simply don’t know.”
The most prolific death penalty states have successfully deflected most challenges to secretive protocols. But momentum is building toward unlocking details.
Following a Missouri execution in December, a federal appeals judge wrote in a dissenting opinion that the state was using “shadow pharmacies hidden behind the hangman’s hood.” The state has executed three other men since then.
Last week, an Oklahoma judge voided the state’s execution law, agreeing with two inmates who claimed a “veil of secrecy” that prevents them from obtaining information about lethal injection drugs violated their constitutional rights.