An unsettling combination of botched prison executions and a shortage of killer drugs have resulted in a controversial proposal going through the General Assembly.
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, is pitching a bill that would prohibit the public disclosure of information about companies that make drugs for lethal injections of prisoners convicted of capital crimes.
Virginia seems to be following the path of Ohio, which has approved a similar law. Drug companies are quietly pushing laws to make killer cocktails secret. They don’t want their ingredients revealed while corrections systems search for scarce execution drugs.
The supply problem began in 2011 when the sole maker of sodium thiopental stopped manufacturing the drug. It’s used to anesthetize doomed prisoners before they’re injected with drugs such as potassium chloride to stop their hearts. Prison systems looked to Europe for substitutes, but the European Union, opposing capital punishment, bars their export. Some prisons reportedly scoured the black market for supplies.
In April, the botched public execution in Oklahoma of murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett drew attention once again to questions of capital punishment, regarded as unconstitutional from 1972 until 1976. It’s now legal in 32 states, including Virginia.
Lockett was injected with a three-stage cocktail of lethal drugs. But 10 minutes into the process, while he was strapped in his death gurney, he revived before horrified witnesses. It took him 40 minutes to die.
Lethal injection is the preferred method in most states. Lethal gas ranks second in popularity and also in botched executions.
The Lockett case and others have raised questions about whether lethal injections should be banned because they may be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments again this spring.
Saslaw’s bill, which passed the Senate last week and is in the hands of the House of Delegates, exempts the identities of manufacturers and the components themselves from the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
An aide for Saslaw declined to comment on the legislation, referring questions to the Department of Corrections, which said through spokeswoman Liz Kinney, “We would want to keep this information confidential.”
Opponents such as the Society of Professional Journalists oppose the bill, saying it’s wrong to make such information secret. “The bottom line is that this needs to be open,” says Dana Neuts, national president of the society.