Missouri Governor Matt Blunt has signed a bill making secret the identities of people who carry out executions, angering critics who say the move further shrouds the death penalty process in secrecy.
The debate over executions, especially lethal injections, has states across the U.S. reviewing how they put inmates to death. A series of botched executions have led to legal challenges, and death penalty opponents say executioners’ identities and professional credentials should be open to public scrutiny.
Last month, a federal appeals court panel ruled that Missouri’s lethal injection method is not cruel and unusual punishment, overruling a lower court’s effective freeze on executions. But the decision is being appealed.
The new Missouri law allows workers involved in executions to sue the media or others who disclose their information. Supporters say it is an important protection against threats to workers just doing their jobs.
The Department of Corrections said offering confidentiality would help in recruiting medical professionals to assist with executions. Some death penalty advocates also say revealing doctors’ identities would expose doctors to sanctions by the American Medical Association, because it has said such doctors would be violating their oath to “first, do no harm.”
The law followed the revelation last summer by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper of the identity of Dr. Alan Doerhoff, who participated in dozens of executions and testified anonymously to a federal judge in a lawsuit challenging lethal injection.
Doerhoff came under criticism after disclosing that he occasionally altered the amount of anesthetic given to inmates, and after news reports that he had been sued for malpractice more than 20 times.
The Missouri Press Association has not decided whether to file a lawsuit against the law. But the group’s attorney, Jean Maneke, said all newspapers should be concerned.
“Any time government passes a law that says it’s illegal to publish truthful information, that’s a strike at the heart of the First Amendment,” she said. That amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press and free speech.
The law, which takes effect Aug. 28, does make the state’s lethal injection protocol an open record, covering things such as the types, amounts and timing of drugs used.
Missouri has not executed an inmate since October 2005.