Death row secrecy

The recent botched attempts at executing prisoners on death row has resulted in some confusion as to what to do next. The problem stems from the fact that the cocktail of drugs that had traditionally been used are no longer freely available, partly because the countries where they are produced have refused to allow them to be shipped to the US for use in executing people and partly because the drug companies that produce them are fearful of the bad publicity that would result if the public discovered that they are being used not to treat people but to kill them.

Some thirteen states have adopted the policy of trying to keep the whole process clothed in secrecy to get around these problems, while others are considering alternative methods such as firing squads. Louisiana is one of those states that recently considered passing such secrecy legislation.

The bill would have enshrouded Louisiana’s execution procedures in near-absolute secrecy. It provided that the “name, address, qualifications and other identifying information of any person or entity that manufactures, compounds, prescribes, dispenses, supplies, or administers the drugs or supplies utilized in an execution shall be confidential, shall not be subject to disclosure, and shall not be admissible as evidence or discoverable in any action of any kind”.

The proposed legislation undermined the role played by the local board of pharmacy in maintaining oversight on the drugs bought by the department of corrections. Under the terms of the bill the prison service would have been allowed to cross over into other states to buy lethal drugs from compounding pharmacies without needing to apply for a permit from the board.

An amendment to the Louisiana bill would have afforded confidentiality to “any person who participates in an execution or performs any ancillary function related to an execution and shall include information contained in any department records, including electronic records, that would identify any such person”. The clause was so widely cast that lawyers feared it would prevent the public knowing anything about an official inquiry into an execution that might be botched.

At the last minute, the sponsor of the bill withdrew it but the reasons are unclear. It would undoubtedly have face legal challenges on the grounds that even a death row inmate has some rights and having mysterious drugs injected into them would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment, while media outlets have challenged the secrecy on First Amendment grounds and the public’s right to know.

The death penalty is an abomination and why people would go through such contortions to retain it is beyond me.


  1. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Because that would be totally easier than just getting rid of the death penalty?

    Fuck me, but these politicians are idiots.

  2. says

    I hope someone will “Snowden” them once they decide on their secret formula.
    They’re so fucking stupid. What, do they think they can keep a secret?

  3. keithb says

    I don’t like the death penalty, but why not just use Nitrogen or Helium? You don’t even need trained medical personel to administer it.

  4. Mano Singham says


    I think that it is not just killing people, which would be easy. The state needs to create what looks like a peaceful death. The drugs given are a combination of anesthetics and muscle relaxants plus whatever is lethal. With the gases you suggest, people would struggle to breathe and that kind of messy death is what created the uproar and has led to the current situation.

  5. coragyps says

    I don’t think so, Mano. The “struggling to breathe” is (I think…) a consequence of carbon dioxide buildup in your system. With at atmosphere of nitrogen or argon, CO2 would not build up -- what there was would be diluted by inert gas. I think you would just drift off to, then past, unconsciousness.

    Helium would be too undignified to kill anyone with. To go out talking like Micky Mouse? Cruel and unusual.

  6. smrnda says

    Great, more government secrecy. I think that the names of all people taking part in an execution in any way should be made public, and their pictures plastered all around for everyone to see. “Your State’s Executioner” pictures should be up all over with the State’s approved killers smiling faces for all to see.

    If they don’t want to be proud of what they do, they should quit doing it.

  7. Dunc says

    The “struggling to breathe” is (I think…) a consequence of carbon dioxide buildup in your system.

    Yes, that’s true. It’s actually possible to reduce the level of CO2 in your blood (by hyperventilation) low enough that you can hold your breath until you pass out from lack of oxygen without ever experiencing that desperate urge to breathe.

    I think this bizarre approach to execution is actually the result of two conflicting motivations: on the one hand, there is the need not to appear needlessly cruel, and to minimise the psychological effects on those involved in the execution process, whilst on the other, there is a desire to ensure that the victim’s death isn’t too “easy”. Hence you get this absurd procedure designed to create the appearance of a peaceful death, while the victim is still concious and suffering.

  8. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Firing squad is what I’d want for an instant, painless as possible death if I were a convicted felon sentenced to death and had the choice of execution method.

    Pretty hard to botch that. Guillotine works well (although visually messier) and was designed to be humane also. Those would be my first choices were I a death state state choosing how to execute the worst of the worst criminals.

    I do think there are cases where capital punishment is best in the interests of everyone especially society and the victims of crimes -and those should be our priorities I think.

  9. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @ Dunc : The criminals do tend to inflict an awful lot of appalling suffering on their victims too.

    Karma is justice and vice -versa.

    The worst of the worst deserve (& by their actions have chosen) the worst. I don’t have much sympathy for them. Do you?

  10. Mobius says

    For a long time I was accepting of the death penalty. Not supportive, but not anti- either. I did feel that some crimes were deserving of the death penalty.

    That changed about 10 or 15 years ago.

    It came about largely by my growing awareness of the errors in our justice system. I still feel that some crimes deserve death, but there is no way of guaranteeing that the death penalty is not used inappropriately. The death penalty is final. There can be no appeal once it is applied. If evidence arises that the convicted did not, in fact, commit the crime there are no take-backs with the death penalty. The wrongly convicted can not be released.

    And considering the fact humans make errors, there is no way one can say, “Person A absolutely committed this crime.” Any line one tries to apply that sometimes the crime deserves death and sometimes not is completely arbitrary. That was the final straw which led to my becoming anti-death penalty.

    Add to this that the real objective of the justice system, in such cases, should be the removal of the convicted from society…and not punishment or vengeance. Life in prison achieves the same objective. Plus life in prison can be commuted in the case of someone wrongly convicted.

  11. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    It came about largely by my growing awareness of the errors in our justice system.

    I think the justice system should be reformed and made more just -- errors shouldn’t happen if possibly avoidable.

    In cases where there is reasonable doubt of guilt the death penalty shouldn’t be applied.

    But in cases where there clearly is NO doubt, its should be.

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