Arkansas Supreme Court halts decision on disclosure of execution drugs

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 04, 2015 12:58 PM

By Steve Barnes

LITTLE ROCK (Reuters) - The Arkansas Supreme Court on Friday put on hold a decision a day earlier by a lower court judge who ordered the state to disclose information about the drugs it plans to use in executions, as well as the supplier of the chemicals.

The state Supreme Court ordered inmates on death row who filed the original suit to file briefs on the matter by Dec. 14.

On Thursday, the Arkansas lower court judge had ordered the state to disclose information on the drugs by noon on Friday.

In that decision, Judge Wendell Griffen sided with prisoners, who maintained they have a right to know whether the drugs the state would use to put them to death could cause undue pain and suffering.

The Arkansas Supreme Court has blocked the executions of the death row inmates until the prisoners' claims are decided.

Arkansas had argued that a 2014 law requiring that the drugs and the vendors who supply them be kept secret voided an earlier agreement to reveal the drugs and sellers to inmates. The state has said that without confidentiality, vendors will not supply drugs for executions, out of concern over adverse publicity.

Attorneys representing the inmates said the legislation broke an existing agreement and was not allowed under the state constitution or case law.

In his decision, Griffen said public sentiment about capital punishment did not justify breaking the government's obligation to disclose the information to inmates.

Griffen cited troubled executions in four other states as evidence that the inmates had a right to know whether the drugs would kill them without extreme pain.

Many of the U.S. states that have the death penalty have been scrambling for lethal injection chemicals after drug makers in Europe began banning sales to U.S. prison systems about four years ago due to ethical concerns.

States have often sought their execution drugs from lightly regulated compounding pharmacies, which can mix chemicals.

Lawyers for death row inmates contend the chemical combinations provided by these suppliers could be tainted and could cause undue pain and suffering, in violation of U.S. law.

Griffen said there was no basis in law to shield drug suppliers from adverse publicity.

(Reporting by Steve Barnes in Little Rock and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Frances Kerry)