JACKSON, Miss. — A judge has rejected the Mississippi Department of Corrections' attempt to keep secret the pharmacy that supplies a crucial execution drug.
In a Friday ruling, Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Owens wrote that arguments by prison system lawyers to justify withholding information are "baseless."
Attorney General Jim Hood's office argued in a Monday hearing that Owens should declare the information secret and said that those suing to have it released were trying to halt executions in Mississippi.
"Executions are controversial," Owens wrote. "And so are policies and procedures and drugs used during executions. But the court cannot allow fear to control the flow of information from a public agency simply because of the controversial nature of the information."
Finding that the department broke the state's public-records law, Owens instructed officials to release the information and ordered the state to pay attorney fees of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. That group originally sought the records and then filed suit when the Corrections Department released 10 pages with partially redacted information.
Owens also wrote that the department violated the law by not giving legal explanations as to why it redacted information.
"Today Chancellor Owens issued a speedy and thorough opinion which vindicates the principle that these are the people's records which cannot be kept secret," Jim Craig, the MacArthur center's co-director, said in a statement.
Jan Schaefer, a spokeswoman for Hood, wrote in an email Friday that his office would appeal and would ask Owens to halt the release of records during the appeal. Craig has said he would oppose such a stay; he said Hood is stalling to buy time to change state law.
At issue is the identity of the pharmacy providing pentobarbital, a barbiturate used to render prisoners unconscious before they are injected with a paralytic agent and a heart-stopping drug.
In 2012, the state bought pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy in Grenada, called Brister Brothers, which mixed the drug. After Craig's group discovered the name following an earlier records request, state lawyers said the pharmacy refused to make further sales and that the drugmaker cut off its supply to Brister Brothers.
State lawyers said it was important to preserve the ability to buy the drug. Nationwide, concerns have been raised about botched executions because of novel drug combinations, as older sets of drugs become unavailable. Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona have all experienced problem-filled executions.
Craig said the state provided no proof of its concerns about losing suppliers and said problems elsewhere are a reason for greater scrutiny in Mississippi.
"More than ever, after the visible torture of several condemned prisoners in other states last year in botched executions, the origin, integrity, and composition of lethal injection drugs is a matter of serious public concern," he said.
The ruling comes as Hood presses state lawmakers to pass a bill cloaking many aspects of Mississippi executions in secrecy. House Bill 1305 would exempt from disclosure the drug suppliers, the identities of the executioner and anyone "assisting in the execution in any capacity." It would also bar the release of names of execution witnesses without their consent. The proposal says names couldn't even be released in lawsuits, and that anyone releasing secret information could be sued for monetary damages.
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