Bill would cloak lethal injection information in secrecy

The names of those who carry out Georgia’s executions and the identities of those that supply the lethal drugs would be classified as “state secrets” under legislation moving through the General Assembly.

Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, who sponsored the privacy exception, said it is needed to protect individuals involved in the execution process. But opponents said it shields from view how Georgia acquires its lethal-injection drugs and could, if there is a botched execution, prevent the public from finding out why it happened.

Tanner successfully attached the “state secrets” amendment to House Bill 122, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Committee on Wednesday.

It would keep private the names of the guards on duty during executions, the pharmacist who fills out the prescription and the person who administers the lethal drug, he said. The amendment also requires the identifying information of any entity that “manufactures, supplies, compounds or prescribes” the lethal injection drugs to be classified.

Tanner, a former Department of Corrections board member, said he has been working with the agency on the amendment. Nearly half of the states with the death penalty have enacted similar legislation.

“Corrections has been having an issue with individuals that participate in this process being harassed,” he said. “Because they are carrying this function out on behalf of the state, (the department) felt like that it was important to attempt to offer them some protection personally, that their personal information would not be available.”

In recent years, anti-death penalty opponents have targeted a doctor who has participated in administering lethal injections of Georgia inmates. The doctor was subjected to protests and faced complaints that sought to revoke his medical license.

Tanner said he worries that angry family members and others might seek vengeance on those involved in executions if they had access to their identities.

The provision does not make secret the methods used for execution, he said. “This isn’t pro-death penalty legislation or anti-death penalty legislation. It’s just about protecting these people.”

Corrections fully supports the provision that protects those who are essential to the lethal-injection process in Georgia, agency spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan said.

“The purpose of the bill is to protect the safety of the officers, nurses, doctors and pharmacists involved in this process,” she said. “Identifying these individuals and businesses jeopardizes their safety and makes them a target for harassment and intimidation, simply because of their involvement in court-ordered executions.”

William Montross, a lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, said no one wants the names of the actual executioners.

“That is not what this bill is about,” he said. “It is about giving the Georgia Department of Corrections cover so that no one can see how they obtain the drugs they use to kill people. Transparency is being thrown out the window.”

Sandra Michaels of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys said there have been problems with the quality and types of drugs used for lethal injections.

“If there is a problem at an execution, it’s possible this bill will prevent getting to the bottom of what happened,” she said. “Nationally there have been botched lethal injections based on problems with the drugs.”

Georgia’s lethal injection process has had its share of controversy. In March 2011, Drug Enforcement Administration officials confiscated Correction’s supply of sodium thiopental, a sedative once used in a three-drug lethal-injection cocktail.

The seizure occurred shortly after lawyers for a condemned Georgia inmate asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether the state failed to properly register with the DEA when it imported its sodium thiopental from England. Court filings showed that Georgia bought the drug from Dream Pharma, a company that operated in the back of a storefront driving school in London.

Corrections soon switched from sodium thiopental to the barbiturate pentobarbital in its lethal injection cocktail. Last year, the agency changed its procedure from using three drugs to only one, pentobarbital.

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