PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona does not have to reveal who provides its execution drugs, a judge ruled Thursday in a lawsuit arguing that the information would help the public determine whether the death penalty is carried out humanely and promote confidence in the criminal justice system.
The decision marked a defeat for news organizations, including The Associated Press, that sued to get the information released. U.S. District Judge Murray Snow ruled that the media outlets didn’t show they had a First Amendment right to knowing the suppliers of lethal injection drugs.
The judge said the First Amendment protects the right of people to argue about the death penalty, but it doesn’t require Arizona to reveal “protected information to the detriment of the state’s ability to carry out its constitutional, lawfully imposed criminal punishments.”
The lawsuit followed the 2014 execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was given 15 doses of a two-drug combination over nearly two hours in what his attorney called a botched execution.
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Like other states, Arizona is struggling to buy execution drugs after U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies began blocking the use of their products in lethal injections.
Two years ago, Arizona tried to illegally import an anesthetic that has been used to carry out executions but is no longer manufactured by companies approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The state never obtained the shipment because federal agents stopped it at the Phoenix airport.
The judge also rejected a bid to order the state to divulge the qualifications of people who carry out capital punishment in Arizona, saying revealing those details could lead to their identification. He noted that state law protects the identities of executioners and death penalty drug suppliers.
Snow said it’s logical that some drug suppliers would decline to do business with the state if their identities were not kept secret.
Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, which carries out executions, said the agency had no immediate comment on the decision.
At a one-day trial in July on the media lawsuit, an Arizona prison official testified that suppliers of lethal injection drugs have refused to sell to the state, even though a law protects the companies from being publicly identified.
The prison official said suppliers fear that selling lethal injection drugs would hurt their business. An attorney for the news organizations offered a different explanation — that the drug companies simply don’t want to be involved in executions.
The state said a law prohibiting the disclosure of identifying information about anyone serving on an execution team extends the same sort of confidentiality to suppliers of lethal injection drugs.
Other news organizations that filed the lawsuit are The Arizona Republic, Guardian News & Media, Arizona Daily Star, CBS 5 (KPHO-TV) and 12 News (KPNX-TV).
The news organizations won a partial victory last year when Snow ruled that the state must allow witnesses to view the entirety of an execution, including each time drugs are administered. Witnesses to Wood’s death couldn’t see that he was receiving additional doses of the drugs after the first ones failed to kill him.
A new execution protocol issued in January will let witnesses see the injections through a camera in a room where the drugs are loaded into an inmate’s IV line.
Arizona, which has 118 prisoners on death row, saw executions put on hold for 2½ years after the 2014 death of Wood.
But the state is now able to resume executions after a separate lawsuit that challenged the way Arizona carries out the death penalty was settled this summer. No executions are scheduled.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/jacques%20billeaud.