Why Virginia faith leaders are protesting drug secrecy for executions

Governor McAuliffe proposed a law that would allow Virginia to buy lethal injection drugs while keeping the drugs suppliers secret to protect them from public backlash. 

(Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP).
Death row exoneree Harold Wilson, third from right, leaves the podium after addressing a press conference at the General Assembly Building in Richmond, Va., Monday, April 18, 2016, with faith leaders opposed to the death penalty. The group of religious leaders is denouncing Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe's effort to shield the identities of pharmacies that supply drugs for executions. Two of those participating were Bishop Carroll Baltimore, Immediate National Past President, PNBC, second from right, and Rev. Max Blalock, William & Mary Wesley Foundation, right.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe's (D) proposal that suppliers of drugs for the execution of death row inmates should be kept secret by law must be rejected and the death penalty abolished, a group of religious leaders says.

Governor McAuliffe's plan is an amendment to a bill state lawmakers passed last week, which tried to make it mandatory to use the electric chair to carry out scheduled executions when the drugs for lethal injection were not available.

McAuliffe vetoed the bill, but proposed a law to allow state prisons to buy the drugs on an emergency basis while keeping the drug suppliers secret to protect them from public backlash. A growing number of domestic and international drug suppliers have stopped supplying the drugs in order to disassociate themselves from executions.

Religious leaders at a Monday press conference put their voices behind a growing body of evidence that shows lethal injections are not less barbaric than the electric chair, saying that the desire for secrecy was a sign the death penalty was not right.

The Rev. Marc Boswell of The Gayton Kirk Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Va., said the variable quality of drugs used means they should be open to public review.

McAuliffe's proposal presents "a very real risk of horrific and botched executions. We know this because this has already happened to other people in other states," Reverend Boswell said, according to the Virginian-Pilot. 

"Virginia’s elected officials need to reflect on what kind of state we want to be. We need to do away with the myth that lethal injection is a more humane method of execution than the electric chair."

Indeed, the use of the electric chair is currently the subject of contentious legal debate in the US regarding whether it constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment," forbidden under the Eighth Amendment.

But the use of lethal injections, which is meant to be a more humane practice than electrocution, has also been highly controversial.

In Ohio, for example, the state supreme court ruled last month that the prison system could execute death-row inmate Romell Broom after a botched first attempt, which lasted about two hours. Because the drugs did not enter Mr. Broom's body, a second attempt would not "shock the public’s conscience," Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger wrote at the time. 

"I find that unacceptable," Deborah Denno, the Arthur A. McGivney Professor of Law at Fordham University in New York, told The Christian Science Monitor in March. "First of all there's no precedent that because the drugs didn't make it into his system that that would be the basis for deciding that this wasn't an attempted execution." 

Bishop Carroll Baltimore, the former president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, said it was time for Virginia to join the states moving away from the death penalty

"When you have to resort to secrecy of brutality to keep the machinery of death going it's a sure sign that what we’re doing is not right," he said.

However, the way states have worked around drug shortages in the last few years has not always been a secret.

Last year, Texas helped Virginia prison officials meet their deadline for a scheduled execution by supplying them with the lethal injection drug pentobarbital, which has become increasingly difficult to obtain. Virginia had done Texas the same favor in 2013, as the Monitor reported.

In 2015, the number of prisoners executed in the US – 28 – fell to its lowest in 25 years, and the number of people sentenced to death – 49 – dropped to its lowest point in 41 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). So far in 2016, 11 people have been executed by lethal injection, DPIC figures show.

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who oppose the death penalty rose to 37 percent in 2015, the highest rate in 44 years.

McAuliffe said that if lawmakers reject his secrecy amendment, he will veto Del. Jackson Miller's HB815, which would effectively end the death penalty in Virginia, The Pilot reported.

"These amendments deliver a valid path forward to continue VA's capital punishment policy," McAuliffe tweeted regarding his proposed drug-supplier secrecy amendment last week.

"Our citizens share my concerns and do not wish to be forced into using this terrible form of punishment," he said, referring to the electric chair.

However, Sister Ilaria Buonriposi of the Comboni Missionary Sisters in Richmond said Monday the debate over whether electrocution or lethal injection are better is obsolete.

"There is no valid path or less gruesome way to deliver the death penalty. There is no good way to kill someone," she told The Pilot. 

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