Death Row Prisoner Challenges Lethal Injection Secrecy Based on 1st Amendment
An Arizona death row prisoner is arguing that the government’s secrecy is in violation of the First Amendment rights of all citizens to have complete information about the execution process.
Joseph Wood, scheduled to be executed on July 23, 2014, is currently appealing a district court decision at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Mr. Wood is asking his execution be stayed until the state discloses the records related to the drugs to be used in his execution, the government’s reason for determining the drug combination it will use, and the details regarding the qualifications of the executioner. Wood reasons that until he knows that information and can evaluate the risk the execution will result in his torturous and unconstitutional death, his execution should not move forward.
Noting that executions have long been public and open, and that as recently as two years ago the state was more willing to disclose information about lethal injection practices than it is now, Mr. Wood asserts that an open and transparent execution process is needed to ensure the constitutionality of the death penalty process.
Wood has good reason to want this information, particularly given past problems that have occurred with the drugs included in Arizona’s execution drug cocktail, midazolam and hydromorphone. Besides being the same drug combination Ohio used in the problematic execution of Dennis McGuire in January (McGuire took over twenty minutes to die and “struggled, made guttural noises, gasped for air and choked” during the execution), midazolam has also been used in several other problematic executions, including the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and the execution of William Happ in Florida.
Beyond concerns with his own execution, Wood argues for government transparency and the public’s right to know how the state is implementing executions in its name. The information Wood is seeking is critical to carrying out capital punishment, and thus necessary knowledge for the public to have an informed debate about how and whether the system is working.
Without transparency, we are forced to simply take the state’s word that executions will be carried out properly —but issues in the executions of Clayton Lockett, William Happ, and others has shown that much more openness and transparency is needed in lethal injection executions. These problematic executions affirm that Arizona should stay Joseph Wood’s execution until it reveals the information he is requesting and that information can be carefully reviewed by the public, the press and the courts.