Lawsuit Aims to Break Arizona's Secrecy Over Experimental Lethal Injections

Media outlets charge public has "right" to know how state is conducting executions, following man's prolonged and grisly death at hands of Arizona authorities

Major media organizations have levied a federal lawsuit to force Arizona to break its secrecy around lethal injections by revealing the drugs and processes used to kill people, because the public has the "right" to know.

"By withholding information about the source, composition, and quality of the drugs it uses for lethal injection executions, as well as the qualifications of those chosen to administer the drugs, the State of Arizona has closed critical governmental proceedings that have historically been open to the public and undermined the public's ability to ensure the positive functioning of government," reads the complaint, which was filed on behalf of the Guardian, the Associated Press, and major Arizona news outlets—the Arizona Republic, KPNX-TV Channel 12, KPHO Broadcasting Corporation, and the Arizona Daily Star.

The legal challenge, reported Friday, is not the first targeting Arizona state secrecy surrounding lethal injections, and it follows similar lawsuits in Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma. Arizona is one of several U.S. states that have turned to experimental drug cocktails, cloaked in secrecy, to execute people on death row, in response to a European ban on providing supplies for U.S. executions.

On July 23, when Arizona executed Joseph R. Wood, authorities used more than 15 injections of an experimental combination of the drugs midazolam and hydromorphone, which took over two hours to kill him. Witnesses reported a prolonged and seemingly painful death, in which the man gulped and gasped more than 600 times. Before the execution, the state refused to disclose full information about the lethal injection drugs, and the lawsuit notes, "The public still does not know where the drugs came from, how potent they were, or how their quality was assured."

"In tune with many other death penalty states, Arizona has gone to great lengths to hide the provenance and nature of the medical drugs it uses to execute prisoners," writes Ed Pilkington for the Guardian.

The execution of Wood, which was denounced as "cruel and unusual," is not an isolated case. Numerous states have stand accused of cruel executions, and experimental use of midazolam has been implicated in similarly gruesome executions in Florida, Ohio, and Oklahoma.

The suit, filed in district court in Phoenix, names Arizona's director of corrections, Charles Ryan, and attorney general, Thomas Horne, as defendants. The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale law school, with the assistance of Ballard Spahr LLP in Phoenix, is representing the plaintiffs.

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