Death-Row Inmates Have A Right To Know The Identities Of Lethal Injection Suppliers, Court Rules

Missouri can’t keep secret the names of those who provide it with pentobarbital, a deadly anesthetic.
Midazolam was at the center of an explosive 2015 Supreme Court case that upheld the constitutionality of Oklahoma's lethal injection protocols.
Midazolam was at the center of an explosive 2015 Supreme Court case that upheld the constitutionality of Oklahoma's lethal injection protocols.

A federal appeals court said on Friday that Missouri must disclose the identities of the drug suppliers who provide the chemical used in the state’s single-drug execution protocol.

In 2015, two death-row inmates from Mississippi challenged the constitutionality of the three-drug cocktail in their impending executions, but to make their case they sought information from Missouri, which uses pentobarbital ― an anesthetic that is used as the sole drug in a number of states.

In their lawsuit, the inmates, Richard Jordan and Ricky Chase, are relying on language from Glossip v. Gross, a 2015 Supreme Court case that required prisoners defying their methods of execution to name a “known and available alternative method of execution” before pressing forward with their claims.

So their attorneys filed a subpoena requesting more information about how Missouri obtains and uses pentobarbital. The state resisted, leading to a court battle resulting in Friday’s ruling.

Acknowledging that “the public disclosure of a pentobarbital supplier’s identity may have detrimental consequences for a state,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled that Missouri couldn’t show that disclosing the information would impose an “undue burden” as required by law.

Officials had argued that its pentobarbital suppliers “require the assurance of confidentiality” before doing business with the state, but the appeals court found these claims “speculative,” noting instead that suppliers may also consider “financial, political, and other factors” in deciding whether to continue providing pentobarbital to Missouri.

The 8th Circuit also rejected arguments that revealing the identities of the suppliers of the lethal chemical threatened Missouri’s sovereignty, or that the information is otherwise protected by the state secrets privilege, which the court said applies to military or national security concerns.

Like other death penalty states, Missouri has laws shielding the public from knowing how its lethal injection drugs are obtained. Because of this secrecy, the inmates turned to courts to shed some light on how Missouri ― as well as Texas and Georgia ― does things to hopefully help their own case in Mississippi.

Friday’s decision complements a BuzzFeed News report published earlier this week that called into question states’ claims that secrecy is needed to protect lethal injection suppliers from threats of violence.

“Missouri’s lethal drug suppliers are selling to a public agency; they cannot expect their sales to be kept a secret from the public, let alone prisoners who need that information to prove that Mississippi’s execution procedures will cause a severely painful death,” said Jim Craig, a lawyer for the MacArthur Justice Center, responding to an earlier ruling on the case in July.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Craig, a longtime death penalty attorney, put his clients’ case in starker terms.

“This is really about a concern that Mississippi is going to torture these men to death,” he said.

Popular in the Community