Missouri governor signs bill concealing executioners' identities

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Gov. Matt Blunt has signed a bill making secret the identities of people who carry out executions in Missouri.

The measure allows workers involved in executions to sue the media or others who disclose their information.

Supporters say the bill is an important protection against threats to workers just doing their jobs. The Department of Corrections said offering confidentiality would help in recruiting medical professionals to assist with executions.

"This legislation will protect those Missourians who assist in fulfilling the state's execution process as directed by the courts," Blunt said in a written statement.

But critics counter that the bill further shrouds the death penalty process in secrecy, violates First Amendment free-press protections and goes against the public interest.

"It prevents oversight and accountability of the execution process," said Rita Linhardt, death penalty liaison for the Missouri Catholic Conference, which opposes executions.

The bill followed the revelation last summer by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of the identity of Dr. Alan Doerhoff of Jefferson City. Doerhoff participated in dozens of executions and testified anonymously to a federal judge in a lawsuit challenging lethal injection.

Doerhoff came under criticism after disclosing that he occasionally altered the amount of anesthetic given to inmates, and after news reports that he had been sued for malpractice more than 20 times.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Arnie Robbins said Monday that the public has a right to know how the execution process works. But he said the newspaper isn't currently planning a legal challenge.

The Missouri Press Association hasn't decided whether to file a lawsuit against the law. But the group's attorney, Jean Maneke, said all newspapers should be concerned.

"Any time government passes a law that says it's illegal to publish truthful information, that's a strike at the heart of the First Amendment," she said.

The Post-Dispatch story that prompted the law illustrates why openness is important, she said, and the bill is "a direct attack on the public's right to have people performing public service be properly qualified to do so."

Linhardt also questioned the stated reason for the bill.

"If the safety of the execution team members would've really been a major problem, we would've seen this bill long before we had 66 executions," Linhardt said. "There's a lot of people family members could take their revenge out on, but their identities are not confidential."

The bill does make the state's lethal injection protocol an open record, covering things such as the types, amounts and timing of drugs used, but not the doctor and execution team's names or addresses.

Blunt secretly signed the bill Saturday, but his office did not announce it until Monday afternoon. The law takes effect Aug. 28.

A federal appeals court panel ruled last month that Missouri's lethal injection method is not cruel and unusual punishment, overruling a lower court's effective freeze on executions. But the decision is being appealed.

The state hasn't executed an inmate since convicted killer Marlin Gray was put to death in October 2005.

Secret execution bill is HB820.

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