Secrecy of Tenn. executions debated

There is new debate surrounding the death penalty in Tennessee, with the focus shifting to how much the public should now.

This weekend, the Tennessean published an article about a bill passed in 2013 exempting certain information about lethal injection drug from the state's Open Records Act.

Many states, including Tennessee, are struggling to obtain the drugs used in lethal injections because drug companies are distancing themselves from the practice and the often negative publicity.

The exemption lawmakers approved last year would allow those providing the drugs to remain confidential.

"Executions are a highly controversial topic in our country, so anytime the state moves to make certain information about this secret - including the source of the drug - it only creates suspicion and question," said Deborah Fisher, Executive Director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG).

"Transparency is really the best path to make sure citizens are informed and knowledgeable about decisions like this."

Fisher joins the voices arguing against the secrecy. She wonders how, if the drug source remains confidential, Tennesseans will know if the injection chemicals meet constitutional requirements for carrying out the death penalty.

"It's already clear that none of the normal drug manufacturers are providing the legal injection drug, based on moral grounds," she said. "So the question is -- where are they getting it?"

10News contacted the offices of all three state senators who sponsored last year's bill. None were available for interviews Monday.

Details about who performs the executions is also exempt from the Tennessee Open Records Act.

Dwight Aarons with the University of Tennessee Law school notes with interest the shift in focus from capital punishment to government transparency.

"It's not directly challenging whether or not we have the death penalty. It's not challenging whether there will be lethal injection, but it's challenging the drugs that are used for lethal injection," Aarons said.

He guesses this push for transparency might represent a new argument from those who oppose the death penalty.

"For the last 30 years, challenges to the death penalty have been unsuccessful... I don't want to say its the last ditch effort, but I think it's where the movement against the death penalty is right now."

Aarons argued, keeping the information secret -- only temporarily -- would be a better option than keeping it confidential forever. That way, outside groups could later assess how well the process is working, review costs, etc.

He called it a "phenomenon" of the 21st century, that a grass roots movement could so successfully discourage drug companies from participating in capital punishment - which is legal.

"It's not simply about the death penalty, its strikes me as much more about social media, and the 21st century and how we communicate and what we think about ourselves and the power individuals may have by getting together..." he said.


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