OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Restricting the media from witnessing an execution cuts off the public's ability to have a fair and uncensored look at the state exercising its most awesome power, an attorney for two newspapers argued Thursday before a federal judge.
The Oklahoma Observer and Guardian US newspapers, along with two journalists who work for the papers, sued the state following a problematic lethal injection in the spring, arguing the media should have greater access to witnessing an execution. They also are opposed to new execution protocols that reduce the number of media witnesses and give the prisons' director the ability to limit what they see and hear.
"That effectively functions as a censorship tool," attorney Lee Rowland told U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton.
The newspapers want media witnesses to be able to view the entire execution, from the insertion of the IV lines until the inmate is declared dead, and hear what's taking place in the death chamber through a microphone.
Rowland also argued the state violated the First Amendment when blinds were lowered and reporters were prevented from witnessing all of the April 29 execution of Clayton Lockett after it had started. Lockett lifted his head and struggled on the gurney before a doctor noticed a problem with an IV line and the warden ordered the blinds lowered.
As a result, the press was limited to only seeing the beginning of the lethal injection and had to rely on the state's account of what happened after the blinds were closed, including the final minutes before Lockett died, Rowland said.
But attorneys for the state said Lockett's problematic execution was an anomaly.
"We have one incident out of 110 lethal injections over 30 years where the blinds were lowered," said Assistant Attorney General Dan Weitman. "We don't think there's a likelihood of this occurring again."
Weitman also defended changes in the protocol that reduced the number of media witnesses at an execution from 12 to five. He said that was a logistical decision made after the death chamber was renovated following the Lockett execution to give the executioners more room.
Weitman said allowing the media to watch the execution team insert the IVs and hear audio from inside the death chamber could result in the executioners' identities becoming known.
And although media witnesses have been authorized to view Oklahoma executions since the 1950s, Weitman pointed out there is no constitutional requirement that the media be allowed to witness executions.
"We think it's good for the press to be there, but it's not constitutionally required," Weitman said.
Heaton, a former Republican legislator, suggested he would issue a ruling before the state's next scheduled execution on Jan. 15.
"These are some interesting and difficult issues," Heaton said. "I will try to issue a decision promptly."
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