A federal judge has ordered mediation talks between Idaho prison officials and more than a dozen news organizations that are challenging a policy that limits public access to lethal injection executions.
U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge handed down the order Thursday, two days after The Associated Press and 16 other news organizations filed a lawsuit seeking to force the Idaho Department of Correction to let witnesses view the execution process from start to finish.
The lawsuit is not intended to obstruct the state's June 12 scheduled execution of convicted murderer Richard Leavitt. Instead, it focuses on a narrow section of the agency's execution protocol.
Like most states with lethal injection, Idaho's policy bars witnesses from watching as a condemned inmate is brought into the execution chamber, strapped to the table and has IVs inserted into his or her arms. The news organizations say reporters must be able to view executions from start to finish so they can accurately report the events _ and any complications that may emerge _ to the public.
Lodge's order requires the parties to quickly begin nonbinding mediation on or before June 1 under the supervision of Magistrate Judge Candy Dale.
"Any opportunity to mediate a case is a positive development for both parties," said Chuck Brown, the Lewiston attorney representing the news groups. "It avoids some of the uncertainty of how a third party, in this case a judge, might rule in the future."
An IDOC spokesman says agency officials are still waiting to be served with the initial complaint filed Tuesday.
"When we are, we will take appropriate action," said spokesman Jeff Ray.
The agency has defended its policy on grounds that keeping the first few steps private is essential to protecting the anonymity of the execution team. The agency also denied multiple requests by the news organizations to modify its protocol before the media turned to the federal courts.
The plaintiffs joining the AP include the Idaho Statesman, The Times-News, Lewiston Tribune, Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Spokesman-Review, Boise Weekly, The Idaho Press Club and Idahoans for Openness in Government. The plaintiffs also include newspapers with Pioneer Newspapers, including the Idaho State Journal and Idaho Press Tribune
The lawsuit relies heavily on a 2002 San Francisco-based federal appeals court ruling that found that witnesses should be allowed to view executions from the moment the condemned enters the death chamber until their final heartbeat.
Since the ruling, only two states under the court's nine-state jurisdiction are following it: California, where the case arose, and Nevada, which changed its policy after media challenged rules barring witnesses from viewing the entire process. Idaho, Arizona, Washington and Montana have all barred witnesses from the first portion of lethal injection executions.
Most states nationwide do the same. Of the 27 states that have lethal injection outside of the circuit's jurisdiction, only Ohio and Georgia allow witnesses to see the entire process.
The lawsuit comes at a time when questions have been raised about whether the lethal cocktail of drugs used in the procedure is effective and whether the execution staff is properly trained. Some death row inmates have challenged the constitutionality of lethal injection executions in court, contending that the insertion of the IVs can be easily botched, causing severe pain for the condemned.