Thursday 10 February 2011

States Hide Behind Secrecy in Lethal Injection Crisis

Another week has gone by and, naturally, that means another round of shocking revelations about the United States’ addiction to lethal injection drugs, evoking memories fromRequiem for a Dream. This time, the latest recipient of aPublic Records Act request from your friendly neighborhood ACLU lawyer is the FDA, the agency that earlier this month claimed it wasn’t its job to regulate drugs used in lethal injections.
The ACLU keeps uncovering more to the story, but each new revelation just raises more unanswered questions.
Months ago, when state officials first started reporting that they had gotten their hands on the lethal injection drug sodium thiopental despite a nationwide shortage, the ACLU of Northern California began filing a series of Public Records Act requests to find out exactly how -- and from where -- they had gotten it. The first request went to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), and after a few weeks of the CDCR illegally withholding the documents, the ACLU went to court, forcing the department to release a flood of documents with about as much big black marker as actual information. But in between those black marker redactions, the ACLU gleaned some incredible facts: CDCR had spent thousands of hours of staff time and tens of thousands of dollars on what they called a “secret mission” to find the drug anywhere in the world and procure it at any cost.
But all those redactions from the released documents just prompted more questions. Meanwhile, other activists around the world were probing as well, with British human rights group Reprieve uncovering the fact that the source of America’s ill-gotten poison was Dream Pharma, aka a dude in the back of a driving school with a truckload of lethal pharmaceuticals.
So the ACLU sent out another round of public records requests, this time to the FDA, DEA and Customs enforcement. As of this posting, they’re still waiting on the good men and women at the DEA and Customs – it takes awhile to go through all those documents with a big black marker and get rid of anything important. While the main FDA office in Washington, DC, continues to stall, the  New Orleans District Office actually handed over some records, even though they too went wild with the redactions. The newly released records reveal just enough information to evoke a great big "WTF?"
It seems, according to their own public documents, that FDA officials initially seized the imported execution drugs but eventually succumbed to pressure to let them through. Emails show officials from at least two states pressuring the FDA to release their drugs despite the feds’ reservations. One email even says “they are receiving significant pressure from the Governor’s Office.” Which governor you ask? And who exactly is “they”? Since the FDA took their black marker to the email, we are all left wondering.
This whole fiasco just begs a few questions: what are they trying to hide? Who in the U.S. government is so intent on executing people that they’re willing to cover up the entire process? And why are federal agencies being pressured to not do their jobs?
The New York Times uncovered a few more facts recently that may give us a clue as to why everyone’s being so secretive: the drugs may not have worked. According to the paper, the British-made drugs may have been manufactured in 2006 and are said to have a shelf life of just one year. So these drugs the states spent so much time and money getting into the U.S. may not be any good. In fact, according to one expert, the evidence shows that the drug may have failed to work in the execution of Georgia prisoner Brandon Rhode in September 2010. Witnesses at that execution reported his eyes open even after being anesthetized – meaning the sodium thiopental may not have done its job, and Mr. Rhode experienced a torturous death in violation of the Constitution and basic human dignity.
Despite all the lingering questions, a few things are clear: the governments of several states are hiding the truth about the ultimate punishment. Transparency is vital to any free and open society -- and it's crucial when the state chooses to take a life in the name of the law. The secrecy and avoidance of accountability is just further evidence that the death penalty system is broken beyond repair.

James Clark.

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