Why we know so little about Georgia's execution protocol

The reasons why Kelly Gissendaner's execution was delayed are shrouded with mystery. And they're likely to remain that way.

State corrections officials said a deadly solution of pentobarbital to be used in her lethal injection appeared "cloudy" but offered little more.

Not so long ago, routine records requests yielded a trove of information about how the state obtained the chemicals it uses to execute condemned inmates. Now, we don't know where the compounding pharmacy is, who made the concoction, what medical equipment was used and who prescribed the drugs used for the lethal injections.

That's because a 2013 law classifies that information as "confidential state secrets." The law has been upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court and there's no appetite among leading lawmakers to change it.

The secrecy measure came after a string of revelations that earned national attention.

A records request disclosed how Georgia turned to a London pharmacy that shared an office with a driving school to buy a lethal injection sedative in 2010 during a nationwide shortage of the drug. Federal regulators later seized the chemical over questions about whether the state circumvented the law to get it, effectively blocking executions for months.

Other requests have shown how state prisons officials met with counterparts in Ohio and Oklahoma to lay the groundwork to change the three-drug cocktail Georgia used. And they revealed the expiration date of Georgia's stockpile of the chemicals.

State Rep. Kevin Tanner, a Dawsonville Republican who sponsored the 2013 law, said the state needed to protect those who participate in executions from being harassed by opponents. In one instance, death penalty critics asked Georgia's medical board to revoke the license of a doctor who oversaw Georgia's executions.

It also was designed to make it easier for Georgia to obtain lethal injection drugs from firms fearful of wading into a capital punishment debate. Tanner said those firms are wary of supplying the drugs because of "harassment and threats." Several stopped selling the drugs five years ago amid growing protests.

Critics who warned of the legislation two years ago say Gissendaner's case justifies their concerns.

"We now have a very clear example of why we should not have cordoned off that information from the public," said state Sen. Nan Orrock. "The public's right to know is being trampled by that legislation."

The Southern Center for Human Rights, which also opposed the secrecy law, said its "worst fears came to life" when Georgia was on the brink of executing Gissendaner.

"Georgia must not be allowed to proceed with the execution unless and until it fully discloses the source and testing of its lethal injection drugs," said Sara Totonchi, the civil rights group's director. "Without basic information about the source of the drug, it is impossible to know whether it will work as planned or cause grievous pain and suffering."

About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.