Court upholds lethal-injection secrecy law

The Georgia Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of a state law that keeps secret the identities of the makers and suppliers of Georgia’s lethal-injection drugs.

The court, in a 5-2 decision, rejected a challenge to the statute filed by lawyers for condemned killer Warren Hill. The ruling should clear the way for a number of executions, which have been on hold while the case was pending.

The reasons for offering privacy are “obvious,” Justice Harris Hines wrote for the majority.

These include avoiding the risk of harassment or retaliation from persons related to the prisoners or from others who might disapprove of the execution “as well as simply offering those willing to participate whatever comfort or peace of mind that anonymity might offer,” Hines wrote.

In addition, “we believe that the same logic applies to the persons and entities involved in making the preparations for the actual execution, including those involved in procuring the execution drugs,” Hines wrote. “(W)ithout the confidentiality offered to execution participants by the statute … there is a significant risk that persons and entities necessary to the execution would become unwilling to participate.”

Benham, who authored the dissent, noted the recently botched execution in Oklahoma of inmate Clayton D. Lockett, who died of a heart attack after he writhed, gasped and struggled to lift his head after being declared unconscious on the lethal-injection gurney.

“I write because I fear this state is on a path that, at the very least, denies Hill and other death row inmates their rights to due process and, at the very worst, leads to the macabre results that occurred in Oklahoma,” wrote Benham, who was joined by Justice Carol Hunstein. “There must be certainty in the administration of the death penalty.”

The case involved an appeal by the state from an order issued last July by Fulton Superior Court Judge Gail Tusan, who found the law was likely unconstitutional. In her ruling, Tusan halted the execution of Hill so she could more closely examine the secrecy law. But the court reversed Tusan’s decision.

Hill sits on death row for killing a fellow inmate at a state prison in 1990. At the time, Hill was serving a life sentence for the murder of his former girlfriend.

On Monday, Lauren Kane, a spokewoman for state Attorney General Sam Olens, said her office was pleased with the court’s ruling but would not comment any further because the case is still pending.

In a statement, Hill’s attorneys said the ruling “effectively affords the state of Georgia to alter (its) lethal-injection protocol in any way it sees fit and to conceal from the public and even the courts the identity and provenance of the chemicals it intends to use to carry out executions.”

Benham’s dissent, the statement said, “correctly found that this decision conflicts with basic requirements of due process.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.