Death Row

First Amendment Coalition Joins Execution-Drug Lawsuit, Seeks Release of Information

The First Amendment Coalition of Arizona filed an amended complaint on Thursday to join a lawsuit by Federal Public Defenders seeking information about execution drugs.

The public defenders filed their lawsuit on June 26 on behalf of Arizona's condemned prisoners, hoping to find out more about the drug Midazolam and its use in the then-planned execution of convicted murderer Joseph Wood.

See also: -Prison Violated Protocol by Giving 15 Doses of Lethal-Injection Drug, Attorney Says

After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to weigh in on a motion in the suit to block Wood's execution due to the lack of public information, Arizona officials pumped the drug into Wood's body a total of 15 times. The "botched" execution was captured in ghastly detail by the Arizona Republic's Michael Kiefer, (who's also a former New Times writer).

Kiefer counted every gasp he heard Wood utter during the slow execution. Wood didn't die for nearly two hours.

The plaintiffs in the case are being represented by the public defenders and Los Angeles law firm Sidley Austin. The claim by the First Amendment Coalition, which defends issues concerning journalism and freedom of speech, will be represented by the Austin firm.

The Coalition joins only the first claim of an alleged breach of First Amendment rights. Various "obstructions" to the public's ability to witness the execution and learn about the drugs being used "deprived the Arizona public of informed and accurate media coverage," the amended suit states.

The Coalition demands that officials:

* Allow the public to observe a condemned prisoner being escorted into the death chamber and being strapped to a gurney.

* Release the amount and types of drugs used, plus how they'll be used in terms of "timing and administration," and their effects.

* The Coalition wants to know how long Arizona officials believe the execution drugs will take to "render the prisoner unconscious and to die," and how the state would respond to complications.

The First Amendment rights of the Coalition and condemned plaintiffs will continue to be deprived if the requests are not met, the complaint says.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals noted in a 2002 decision that the public has a right to view executions, including "initial procedures" of the processes involved, says Dan Barr of the First Amendment Coalition. "A dozen years have gone by, and Arizona is still not complying with that ruling."

Whether one supports the death penalty or not, Barr says, "the State of Arizona needs to be far more transparent in how it carries out its greatest power - the power to take someone's life."

"Arizona's plan for executing Joseph Wood was devised in secret, improvised in the moment, and evaluated behind closed doors," said Mark Haddad, a partner at Sidley Austin, in a written statement on the amended complaint. "Execution by experiment cannot continue. We are bringing this case to establish that the public, the press, and the prisoners whom a state has condemned to death have a right to know both how that state intends to and does in fact conduct its executions."

No new executions are scheduled currently in Arizona. The state DOC's website shows that 119 people are now on death row.

"Pending the results of the investigation ordered by the Governor, we won't be filing anymore warrants for execution," says Stephanie Grisham, spokeswoman for state Attorney General Tom Horne.

Click here to see the latest filing.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern