MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The state of Alabama must reveal details of its lethal injection procedure, a federal judge has ruled, granting the request of news organizations to unseal court records in the wake of an aborted execution.
U.S. Judge Karon O. Bowdre ruled Wednesday that the public has a "common law right of access to the sealed records relating to Alabama's lethal injection protocol."
The judge said some information can remain secret in the interest of security, such as the names of low-level prison employees involved in executions. But she ordered the state to tell her by June 7 if there is identifying information in any of the records the court plans to make public. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall's office is reviewing the order, his spokesman said.
The Associated Press, The Montgomery Advertiser and the Alabama Media Group asked the court in March to unseal records in a lawsuit brought by death row inmate Doyle Lee Hamm, whose death was halted at the last minute in February when the execution team could not connect an intravenous line to his veins, which were damaged by lymphoma, hepatitis and past drug use.
"It may also help the public to understand how the same scenario might be repeated or avoided under the protocol as it currently stands," Bowdre wrote in a 19-page memorandum ordering the release of the information.
Alabama for years has released scant details about its execution process or where it obtains the drugs used, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Every state carrying out executions has kept some parts of the process secret, but they're increasingly being challenged by prisoners and media and public interest groups seeking access to records and judicial proceedings.
"Alabama is the most secretive state in the country when it comes to executions. It conceals its entire execution protocol and when there have been clearly botched executions_such as Doyle Hamm and Ronald Smith_prison officials have denied that there were any problems and deflected all other questions by claiming that the execution was carried out according to the protocol," Dunham wrote in an email.
Smith, another Alabama inmate, heaved and coughed for the first 13 minutes of a lethal injection as he was being put to death in 2016.
Hamm's attorneys had sought to block his execution date, arguing that lethal injection would be unconstitutionally cruel because of his illnesses. The state had assured Bowdre in earlier court filings that his execution could be carried out properly. On the night Hamm was prepared for death, prison officials ultimately called it off, saying they had difficulties obtaining "the appropriate venous access."
The state argued that the process should be kept confidential for security reasons, and that some information, such as the names and doses of drugs, have already been publicly released in court filings.
"It is the ADOC's policy that all documents associated with the execution of death row inmates are confidential," Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a court filing. "The ADOC has a strong interest in protecting the confidentiality of its execution protocol because the protocol contains security procedures relating not only to the execution itself, but procedures concerning the days leading up to a scheduled execution."