State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

State's policy on executions under scrutiny

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Oct 17, 2012 3:12 PM
executionSCIrockview.jpg

Photo by ACLU legal brief, from www.portal.state.pa.us

A federal judge is considering a request that future lethal injections in Pennsylvania be blocked unless they can be viewed without interruption by media witnesses.

Witnesses are selected to view each state execution – members of the media and public are invited to submit their names to a lottery, and victims of the condemned person’s crime are selected as well.

But none of the selected witnesses sees the entire process by which an inmate is put to death. A curtain is drawn at certain points when the execution team is administering drugs and checking the inmate’s consciousness.

In September, days before the October 3 scheduled execution of convicted murderer Terrance Williams, two newspapers asked a federal court to enjoin executions, on the grounds that the procedure of drawing a curtain violates their First Amendment Right to view and report on the process.

“By opening the curtain even for one second longer than we have to, we are exposing and potentially increasing the risk that these folks will be identified,” said Timothy Gates, attorney for the state Department of Corrections. He argued in court that the practice of drawing a curtain is necessary under law, because those involved in the injection process must remain anonymous.

“These are members of the community. These are members that that certainly could be subject to ridicule by folks that are anti- or against the death penalty,” he said.

Lawyers representing the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Harrisburg Patriot-News argue the state hasn’t proven people involved in executions have ever been harassed when the process is viewed uninterrupted.

“Executions over 150 years – they can’t point to any problem where anybody has ever suffered a harm,” said Paul Titus, with the Pittsburgh office of the firm Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis.

During the hearing, he said it is “almost Orwellian” for the state to say that certain portions of executions shouldn’t be seen. He argued that it is part of the public debate, and there is a strong societal interest in how it is administered.

Lawyers for the newspapers point to the fact that one federal court circuit – the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, with jurisdiction over California, among other districts – has made viewing executions a First Amendment right for the media. The state of Ohio, Titus said, since changed their policy to allow witnesses of executions to see the entire process, from start to finish.

If the judge grants an injunction, executions could still proceed in Pennsylvania, but the curtain would have to stay open.

The scheduled execution that prompted the request for an injunction was halted by a state judge, but another execution is on the horizon, scheduled for November 8.

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