Tennessee Plans Unprecedented Push for Executions in Secret

March 24, 2014

The state of Tennessee doesn't want you to know how it will kill the condemned.

 
It doesn't want you to know who will flip the switch, sending a lethal dose of pentobarbital through the veins of death row inmates. And it doesn't want you to know how it obtained that pentobarbital — which isn't available from any legal drug manufacturer — as well. State correction officials have even banned the media from visiting inmates on death row.
 
As Tennessee makes an unprecedented push to set execution dates, it is doing so in the shadows, cloaking its plans in secrecy. Legislators passed a bill a year ago that allowed the state to withhold all information about the drugs it plans to use to execute death row inmates. Georgia, Oklahoma and Missouri have enacted similar laws shrouding information about their lethal injection drugs.
 
But a collection of death row inmates has sued Tennessee to pull back that shroud.
 
They're not a particularly sympathetic group: 11 murderers, convicted of some of the state's most heinous crimes. Nine already have execution dates scheduled. But they want one simple question answered first: How will the state kill us?
 
"Tennesseans should be concerned because these executions are ostensibly for them," said Kelley Henry, an assistant federal public defender who represents some of the death row inmates. "They are carried out in the name of the people.
 
"The people have a right to know that the Department of Corrections isn't torturing citizens using public funds."
 
The argument is being aired in other states, too: Without knowing exactly who is making the drugs, there's no way to ensure they'll work as intended. And if the drugs don't work as intended, it could amount to cruel and unusual punishment, which is barred by the U.S. Constitution.
 
Exhibit 1 for that argument is the January execution of Michael Lee Wilson in Oklahoma. His final words, which came about 20 seconds into his execution, were, "I feel my whole body burning," according to the Associated Press.
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