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Death row inmate's case targets Georgia's strict secrecy law

Death row inmate's case on execution drug targets Georgia's secrecy law, toughest in US

Death row inmate's case targets Georgia's strict secrecy law

ATLANTA (AP) -- Lawyers for an inmate set to be executed in days are asking a federal appeals court to weaken Georgia's law that keeps secret the source of the state's lethal injection drug. It's the toughest of a number of secrecy laws passed in recent years by U.S. states eager to stabilize their execution drug supplies.

States say the laws protect companies that fear retaliation for their association with the death penalty. Most were enacted after drug manufacturers, many of them in Europe, stopped selling their products for executions, citing ethical concerns.

"There are certainly secrecy laws in other states, and some of them create extraordinary secrecy, but nothing reaches the level of Georgia," said Megan McCracken, a death penalty expert at the University of California at Berkeley.

Any ruling by the full appeals court would be significant as it would be binding in Georgia pending any appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Robert Dunham with the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks issues related to capital punishment. It also could serve as a reference for lawmakers in other states and would have persuasive, though not binding, authority in other federal courts, he said.

Georgia stopped a lethal injection in March because of a problem with the drug, the barbiturate pentobarbital made by a compounding pharmacy. A Department of Corrections video shows solid white chunks falling against the syringe's plunger in a solution that should be clear. Citing this example, some 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges have expressed concern about Georgia's secrecy law.

Lawyers for death row inmate Brandon Astor Jones, convicted of killing a convenience store manager in 1979 and scheduled to die Tuesday, argue that Georgia's execution method carries "a substantial risk of significant harm," violating his constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment.

But because of the secrecy law, they say, they don't have enough information to make that claim, which violates his due process right.

Similar arguments have been rejected by three-judge panels of the 11th Circuit.

Georgia's law says the identifying information of any entity or person participating in an execution is a "confidential state secret," meaning it can't be revealed, not even for a judge's review or under seal in a court case.

After the defective drug halted Kelly Gissendaner's execution in March, officials investigated and took steps to ensure it wouldn't happen again, state lawyers argued in response to Jones' complaint. The problem was clearly rectified as Gissendaner and two other inmates were executed last year with no sign of pain, state lawyers wrote.

But Jones' lawyers say the investigation lacked transparency, and they aren't convinced officials determined the problem's cause.

Gissendaner's lawyers, including at least one now representing Jones, raised similar arguments before her rescheduled execution in September. A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit rejected those claims, but in a dissenting opinion Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan said the state's secrecy was troubling.

State lawyers say Jones doesn't have a right to know every detail of the execution method. State lawyers also say the law protects the source of the drugs from "rabid manipulations of death penalty opponents."

Updated : 2022-01-27 20:00 GMT+08:00