Ohio Republicans Push Law to Keep All Details of Executions Secret

Republican lawmakers in Ohio are rushing through the most extreme secrecy bill yet attempted by a death penalty state, which would withhold information on every aspect of the execution process from the public, media and even the courts.

Legislators are trying to force through the bill, HB 663, in time for the state’s next scheduled execution, on 11 February. Were the bill on the books by then, nothing about the planned judicial killing of convicted child murderer Ronald Phillips – from the source of the drugs used to kill him and the distribution companies that transport the chemicals, to the identities of the medical experts involved in the death chamber – would be open to public scrutiny of any sort.

Unlike other death penalty states that have shrouded procedures in secrecy, the Ohio bill seeks to bar even the courts from access to essential information. Attorneys representing death-row inmates, for instance, would no longer be able to request disclosure under court protection of the identity and qualifications of medical experts who advised the state on their techniques.

“This bill is trying to do an end run around the courts. When things aren’t going well, the state is making its actions secret because they don’t want people to see them screwing up,” said Mike Brickner, senior policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Ohio.

The draft legislation, framed by Republican state lawmakers Jim Buchy and Matt Huffman, has passed the state House of Representatives and now goes before the Senate. Republican leaders, backed by Ohio’s attorney general, Mike DeWine, want to ram it through no later than 17 December.

The move to erect a wall of secrecy is particularly alarming in Ohio, a state that has experienced no fewer than four botched executions in the past eight years. The most recent was the 26-minute death of Dennis McGuire in January, using an experimental two-drug combination. Eyewitnesses reported him gasping and fighting for breath.

The most notorious incident was the 2009 attempted execution of Romell Broom, which was called off after two hours after officials failed to find a vein.

One of the most contentious aspects of HB 663 is that it tries to break a boycott that has been placed on sales of lethal injection drugs from foreign manufacturers, following a 2011 ban by the European Commission. The bill seeks to undermine strict distribution controls that have been introduced by companies such as Lundbeck in Denmark, a major manufacturer of pentobarbital, by declaring void any contract that prohibits distribution of the drugs to the Ohio department of corrections.

Should the bill make it into law, that provision is certain to be challenged in the courts as a potentially unconstitutional state intervention into commercial contracts. Other legal challenges are almost certain to flow over the clause that prevents the courts gaining access to key information.

Brickner, who opposed the new bill in front of a committee of the Ohio House on behalf of the ACLU, said: “It’s very unclear whether such secrecy would be upheld in a court of law. Our courts don’t look kindly on measures that stop them doing their jobs properly.”

Capital punishment is currently on hold in Ohio. Following the botched execution of McGuire, the federal courts stepped in and imposed a moratorium that runs until February, to give the state time to clean up its act.

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