Mississippi high court: Execution plans can be kept secret
Posted April 13
JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi does not have to publicly disclose details of how it carries out executions, the state's highest court ruled Thursday.
In a 7-2 decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit by the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center that argued the state's corrections department hadn't disclosed enough information in response to a 2014 public records request.
A chancery judge had ordered more information disclosed, but the state appealed. Last year, while the appeal was still pending, legislators changed the law, joining states nationwide in shielding drug purchases and other execution methods from public disclosure.
The state argues that releasing names of drug suppliers could allow death penalty opponents to terminate the supply using public pressure. States have had increasing trouble obtaining execution drugs because some pharmaceutical makers don't want their medicines used for that purpose.
MacArthur Center lawyer Jim Craig disputes that disclosure is a threat, saying it's important to have a full accounting of where Mississippi is getting its death penalty drugs and how it plans to use them.
"There's no threat against any of these pharmacies," Craig said Thursday. "There's no economic threat; there's no physical threat. And across the country this is just being used as a dodge to prevent people from knowing where these dollars are going."
Presiding Supreme Court Justice Michael Randolph wrote in Thursday's decision that the judges must apply the new law to the pre-existing dispute, because lawmakers didn't carve out an exception for ongoing requests and lawsuits.
"This court chooses to follow the law as set forth by the Legislature," Randolph wrote.
Craig said the decision could encourage agencies to run out the clock on public record requests.
"It's disturbing that a state agency can delay responding to a records request for public records for a period of years, while they seek to change the statute to block production of the records requested," he said.
Associated Justice Leslie King, in his dissent, said the court's delay in deciding the case undermined Craig.
"This court, by the dilatory manner in which it has disposed of this case, has either wittingly or unwittingly allowed its actions to be impacted by legislative actions," King wrote.
He said the court should have allowed Craig's case to proceed as if the law hadn't changed.
Lethal injection was previously the sole method of execution in Mississippi, but the legislature changed the law this year to include poison gas, electrocution and firing squad as backup methods if a court outlaws lethal injection. The revised law also gives the state more latitude to choose drugs for executions. Craig is pursuing other lawsuits that claim the state can't execute his clients because it no longer has access to pentobarbital, a fast-acting barbiturate. State law previously specified that a fast-acting barbiturate such as pentobarbital, meant to quickly make a prisoner unconscious, must be used in executions.
Mississippi hasn't executed anyone since 2012, in part because of the legal challenges and the drug shortages. Although no judge has specifically barred executions, Attorney General Jim hood has not petitioned the state Supreme Court to set any execution dates.
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