Arkansas Supreme Court lets state keep lethal injection secret for now

The Arkansas Supreme Court decided Friday to grant an emergency stay on a lower court order for the state to disclose information on companies that sell drugs for lethal injections. 

Kiichiro Sato/AP
This photo shows the death chamber at the Southern Ohio Corrections Facility. A federal judge ruled Oct. 26 that Ohio can shield the identity of people or entities involving in obtaining or using lethal injection drugs for executions, but a court ruled against the same law in Arkansas Thursday.

The Arkansas Supreme Court granted a stay on a court order that would have required immediate disclosure of secret information about what company is providing the state with lethal injection drugs. 

On Thursday, an Arkansas judge ordered the state to release the details of drugs used in injections by Friday at noon, ruling in favor of inmates who argued the state should disclose information about the companies that sell it drugs for executions. Officials took the issue to the state's Supreme Court, and the court granted a stay on the immediate release of the company information one hour before the deadline.

"It is common knowledge that capital punishment is not universally popular," Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen wrote, according to the Associated Press. "That reality is not a legitimate reason to shield the entities that manufacture, supply, distribute, and sell lethal injection drugs from public knowledge."

The issue of whether states need to disclose where they get their execution drugs has intensified over the past year and a half. Execution drugs have become the focus of a heated debate following the botched execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett in April 2014. Prison rights advocates say transparency around the sourcing of lethal injection drugs is vital to ensuring that additional death row inmates are not subject to the kind of agonizing death that Mr. Lockett endured.

The inmates in the Arkansas case have argued that since the state has already obtained the lethal injection drugs, disclosing the information would not harm it now, as the state Supreme Court halted all executions in 2015 pending this case. 

The Arkansas attorney general Leslie Rutledge filed an appeal against this argument, AG spokesman Judd Deere told the AP. Other states have won the case to keep company information a secret in court before, and attorneys wrote in their appeal that many of these states had even stricter secrecy laws than Arkansas.

Having granted the stay, the Arkansas Supreme Court eventually could overturn the judge’s ruling in favor of the state and reinforce the status quo.

If the Arkansas Supreme Court rules against the state’s secrecy law in the inmates’ favor, it would deal a symbolic blow to the death penalty. As a departure from court precedent, it could impact court decisions outside of Arkansas as well.

Before the stay was granted, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) called the court’s order overturning the secrecy of drug sales "troubling."

"The legislature passed a law ensuring confidentiality to suppliers in the sale of those drugs to the state of Arkansas," he told the Arkansas News Bureau. "A sale is accomplished based upon that law and that promise of confidentiality."

Companies sold the state of Arkansas drugs for use in executions covertly. Two major pharmaceutical organizations told their members in March to stop providing drugs for executions, as The Christian Science Monitor reported. Although the orders are not binding, they place pressure on the companies that have secretly provided lethal injection drugs to Arkansas for executions.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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