Senate Bill 2237 passed 32-18, but it was held for the possibility of more debate before moving to the House.
The measure says anyone disclosing a secret name could be sued for money in civil court. Shielded are current or former members of the state execution team, current or former suppliers of the drugs, or witnesses who want to remain confidential.
Senate Judiciary A Committee Chairman Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, said secrecy is needed. Opponents, though, say the secrecy is troubling considering the gravity of an execution, and said restraining reporters and other witnesses from freely naming people they see at an execution appears illegal under the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and publication.
“If we’re going to be in the business of putting people to death, there needs to be as much openness as possible,” said Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association. The trade group represents newspapers.
Similar proposals have been adopted in other states, and Mississippi’s law could impact an ongoing court case aimed at forcing the Mississippi Department of Corrections to disclose details about its execution procedure and drug supplier. The Mississippi Supreme Court heard arguments in November, but has not ruled, on a lawsuit that seeks to compel the state to disclose information about the supplier of execution drugs. A lower court judge ruled for disclosure as a public record in March, but the information has remained secret while the state appeals the decision.
Tindell said Attorney General Jim Hood’s office had warned of anonymous threats and harassing phone calls in which execution team members where called “murderers.”
“We’ve had honest, hard-working Mississippi residents who have refused to work on the execution team because of fear for the safety of their families and concerns about retaliation inside and outside the prison,” Hood said in a statement. “As long as we have the death penalty in Mississippi, we have a responsibility to protect the state employees who assist in carrying out executions. The businesses that agree to supply lethal injection drugs must also be free from the intimidation and strong-arm tactics of some anti-death penalty activists.”
Jim Craig, the lawyer suing the state on behalf of some death-row inmates, disputes claims that any person or business has been threatened. The state has introduced no specific evidence to that effect in court.
Tindell said the amendment would allow drug suppliers to be public, but not the name of the in-state pharmacy. However, he said the pharmacy compounds the drugs, which means it manufacturers it on site from raw ingredients instead of just dispensing drugs made elsewhere. Many manufacturers refuse to sell drugs for use in execution, which has forced states to adopt new drugs.
Family members of victims and the condemned deserve privacy when witnessing an execution, Tindell said, likening bars on reporting their names as similar to the confidentiality shrouding a juvenile court proceeding.
“I think it’s important to the victim’s family and the condemned’s family,” he said. “Those people don’t want to have their names plastered all over the newspaper.”
Hood said he supported the restriction “out of an abundance of respect for the families of murder victims.”
Prior restraints on publication are typically unconstitutional.
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