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Ohio Lawmakers Want to Remove Transparency on Executions, So Capital Punishment Can Resume

Civil rights advocates have criticized a bill that seeks to keep details of state executions off limits to the public, journalists, and courts.
Photo by Ken Piorkowski/Flickr

Ohio has been one of the more active US states in executing its prisoners, ranking eighth across the country for the total number of executions performed since 1976. It has also been one of the most controversial.

The Midwestern state has conducted four botched executions in the last eight years — the most recent of which prompted state officials to put a moratorium on all executions until the state could figure out how to kill someone properly.

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Now, Ohio lawmakers are trying to push through House Bill 663, which proposes to keep parts of the execution process — from the source of lethal injection drugs to the identities of doctors present in the death chamber — secret from the public, journalists, and the courts, ahead of the moratorium's expiration date on January 15, 2015.

The secrecy provisions have received strong backlash from civil rights groups and the media, but supporters say the bill is much less about obscuring the public's right to know than it is about jumpstarting executions in Ohio.

2013 was a big year for executions. Read more here.

Two representatives from Ohio are sponsoring a bill that would allow executions to resume in the state. Photo via Wikipedia.

One of the bill's primary sponsors, State Rep. Matt Huffman (R), told VICE News that HB 663's secrecy provisions have been misrepresented in the media. The primary goal of the bill is to shield the identities of the drug manufacturers and distributors, who often come under fire for supplying lethal injection drugs because of the controversy and polarizing opinions surrounding capital punishment.

"Someone has to supply these drugs and they don't want to do it if the public knows," Huffman said. "Allowing anonymity will allow us to go forward with these executions. It's how we are going to accomplish the task."

Huffman added that reports claiming the bill would prevent the viewing of executions in Ohio and would suppress information on the manner of execution are both false.

Maybe it's time to stop letting states experiment with secret death drugs. Read more here.

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The last execution performed in Ohio took place on January 16, 2014, when convicted killer, Dennis McGuire, was injected with a cocktail of the drugs midazolam and hydromorphone. The 53-year-old struggled and choked for 26 minutes — the longest execution on record in Ohio — before he was pronounced dead, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

After the McGuire debacle, and a series of botched executions performed in other states, many drug companies in the US and in Europe stopped supplying corrections facilities with lethal injection drugs out of principal or concerns about public criticism. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correctionalso quickly moved to put executions on hold until the US District Court established a formal moratorium in August.

Huffman said his bill would encourage drug companies to get back on board.

"The folks from the (Ohio) Department of Corrections have said that they don't think they can get vendors to do it unless there is some anonymity," Huffman said. "If we're going to do executions, this has to be done."

HB 663 passed the Ohio House of Representatives on November 20, and is currently up for debate in the state senate, where it will have to be voted on before the end of the year, or be killed.

Huffman is optimistic that the senate will pass the bill before the New Year. The law would then go to Ohio Governor John Kasich for the final sign off. If all goes according to plan, executions could resume by March — which would still be a few weeks after the state's next scheduled in February, Huffman said.

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Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, is among a group of advocates who say the passing of the bill would be a huge step back for Ohio death penalty laws and would also prevent state medical licensing boards from taking professional action against doctors and nurses who provide medical advice during executions.

"It would make it more difficult to properly monitor executions," Brickner told VICE News. "This seems more like an end-run around courts, and we need to trust courts to respect the public's right to know."

Ohio just doubled down on drug cocktail that tortured a death row inmate before killing him. Read more here.

The clauses in the Ohio bill "are above and beyond" those included in death penalty secrecy laws currently established in five other states, Brickner said, adding that several of those states are currently fighting various litigation cases pursued against their regulations.

Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University, told VICE News that if the bill passes the senate, he expects Ohio civil rights groups and advocates to fight the laws in court before any sort of execution would be allowed to resume in the state.

Berman said that lawmakers may make the case that shielding the identities of the drug makers is a necessary evil, but they'll have a hard time proving it in court.

"Secrecy is the exception, not the norm, and secrecy has a lot of cost that we have to suffer, so the benefits should be big," Berman said. "Here, I struggle to be confident that there's such a benefit to keep this secret."

"Given the problems we've seen with other execution drugs, I'm inclined to think this is an area where we need to have extra transparency," he added.

Follow Payton Guion on Twitter: @PaytonGuion.