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Trial seeks details on suppliers of death penalty drugs

lethal injection

News organizations will clash with Arizona prison officials over the First Amendment at a trial to determine whether the public has a right to know who supplies execution drugs and the qualifications of people who carry out the death penalty.

The Associated Press, Arizona Republic and other news operations are seeking the information in a lawsuit filed after the 2014 death of Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was given 15 doses of a two-drug combination over nearly two hours in what his attorney called a botched execution.

The trial is set to begin Tuesday in Phoenix.

Similar challenges to the death penalty are playing out in other parts of the country that seek more transparency about where states get their execution drugs.

States are struggling to obtain execution drugs because European pharmaceutical companies began blocking the use of their products for lethal injections.

In the Arizona case, the news organizations say information about executions has historically been open to the public and that journalists witness executions as proxies for the general public.

They argued that the release of the information helps the public determine whether executions are carried out humanely and promotes public confidence in the criminal justice system.

“The public cannot meaningfully debate the propriety of lethal injection executions if it is denied access to this essential information about how individuals are being put to death by the state,” lawyers for the news organizations said in the lawsuit.

The Arizona Department of Corrections didn’t have an immediate comment Monday on the trial. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office, which is defending the state at trial, didn’t return phone calls and an email seeking comment.

State law prohibits the disclosure of information that would identify anyone serving on an execution team.

The state said that confidentiality extends to suppliers of the drugs used. An Arizona prisons official has suggested that previous disclosures about suppliers have led other vendors to refuse to provide the drugs.

Other plaintiffs in the case include the Guardian News & Media, Arizona Daily Star, CBS 5 (KPHO-TV) and 12 News (KPNX-TV).

The news organizations won a partial victory last year when U.S. District Judge Murray Snow ruled the state must let witnesses view the entirety of an execution, including each time drugs are administered.

Snow concluded that witnesses to Wood’s death couldn’t see that he was receiving additional doses of the drugs after the first ones failed to kill him.

A new execution protocol issued in January will let witnesses see the injections through a camera in a room where the drugs are loaded into an inmate’s IV line.

Last month, the state settled a separate lawsuit filed by death-row inmates who alleged that Arizona’s prisons chief had abused his discretion in the methods and amounts of drugs used in executions. The agreement limited the power of prison officials to change execution drugs at the last minute.

There are currently 118 prisoners on death row in Arizona.

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