Home / criminal justice / The Solution to Flawed Executions? More Secrecy!

The Solution to Flawed Executions? More Secrecy!


I may have found the answer to the question I posed to you all over the weekend about what kind of weekly fill-in-the-blank blogging you’d like to see. The answer might be weekly Liptak love blogging. Because Adam Liptak’s Monday columns in the NY Times deserve that kind of praise (if only they were not behind the Times Select iron curtain).

Why does Liptak deserve the love this week? For his column yesterday exposing yet another thing that is wrong with the American criminal justice system and with the way that we go about putting people to death. Liptak’s not pulling any punches.

A Missouri doctor who had supervised more than 50 executions by lethal injection testified last year that he sometimes gave condemned inmates smaller doses of a sedative than the state’s protocol called for, explaining that he is dyslexic. “So it’s not unusual for me to make mistakes,” said the doctor, who was referred to in court papers as John Doe I.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch identified him last July as Dr. Alan R. Doerhoff, revealing that he had been a magnet for malpractice suits arising from his day job as a surgeon and that two hospitals had revoked his privileges. In September, a federal judge barred Dr. Doerhoff from participating “in any manner, at any level, in the State of Missouri’s lethal injection process.”

Naturally, state lawmakers took action to address the issue.

A new law, signed this month by Gov. Matt Blunt, makes it unlawful to reveal “the identity of a current or former member of an execution team,” and it allows executioners to sue anyone who names them.

Ah, Matt Blunt. The same governor who recently signed a law making it exponentially more difficult for planned parenthood to operate in Missouri from a cross shaped lectern. Because when someone is messing up executions (perhaps in violation of the 8th Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment), the answer is not to prevent future mistakes but just to make sure that no one knows about those future mistakes. Better to protect the identity of the executioners than the final minutes of the condemned.

And it’s not only Missouri that appears unconcerned with ensuring that executioners are qualified. According to Liptak, Florida law fixing the qualification requirements for executioners demands only that they are 18 years old and and selected by the warden. This, of course, leads to deaths like that of Angel N. Diaz, the convicted murderer who was executed by the state last year and who, because of mistakes made during the lethal injection, took 34 minutes to die and who was almost undoubtedly in great pain at various points.

So why the secrecy? Liptak — and others — are not convinced that its benefits outweigh the costs.

A forceful and persuasive article published in the Fordham Law Review in April argued for “a right to know who is hiding behind the hood.”

Its author, Ellyde Roko, who will start her third year of law school at Fordham in the fall [blogger note: an acquaintance of mine], said in an interview that society’s interest in knowing how the death penalty is administered should outweigh the relatively flimsy interests supporting secrecy. “Not knowing who the executioners are takes away a huge check on the system,” she said.

Having your identity revealed seems to me a small price to pay for the “privilege” of taking another’s life, sanctioned by the state.

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