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Hey, Texplainer: A federal judge in Arizona just ruled that witnesses have the right to see the full process of an execution, including the administration of lethal drugs. Will this affect how Texas carries out executions?
On Wednesday, a U.S. District Court out of Phoenix ruled that journalists and other witnesses have a First Amendment right to view the entirety of an execution, including the administration of lethal drugs — a process currently done behind closed doors. In Texas, witnesses see even less than in Arizona, but protocol here isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
In both states, a small number of witnesses to an execution are permitted to watch through a window as the prisoner, who is already connected to an IV line, gives or declines to give a final statement. They then watch the warden tell the executioners to start administering the lethal dosage. And, almost always, they watch the person die.
But what witnesses in Arizona and Texas don’t see are the drugs being pushed through the IV. This is done in another room, out of view.
Prison staff in both states also have the discretion to close curtains over the window during the procedure, which is what happened in Oklahoma in 2014 after a blown vein led to a botched execution.
It was those last two parts the Arizona court found problematic. The ruling stated that witnesses must now be able to see the administration of the drugs, and that the curtains can’t be closed.
Arizona court rulings have no legal impact on Texas law or procedures, though the issue of how much of an execution witnesses should be able to see has come up in both states. In Texas, the injection is still handled behind closed doors and prison officials can close the curtains “as needed,” according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark. Clark wouldn’t go into the specifics of what might cause the need for a curtain closure, but he did mention that it hasn’t happened in at least 10 years.
Texas prides itself on being unlike other states as far as execution drugs, which have been the source of problems in Arizona and Oklahoma. Texas switched from using certain drug mixtures to using only pentobarbital in its lethal injections in 2012. All 55 executions that have taken place since have been “without incident,” Clark at TDCJ said.
That is not the case in Arizona.
The Arizona lawsuit was filed by several media companies after a 2014 execution in which prison officials sent 15 doses of lethal drugs into Joseph Wood’s veins as he choked and gasped his way to death for two hours. Witnesses didn’t know at the time that Wood was being pumped with more doses when one was supposed to be fatal.
Still, they saw more than Texas witnesses see. Arizona witnesses watch the setup of an execution on a closed-circuit television from the viewing room. They look on as the prisoner is placed on the gurney and hooked up to an IV. In Texas, witnesses are shuffled into viewing rooms only after the prisoner is strapped to the gurney with an IV line already dangling off of his or her arm.
Capital defense attorney Maurie Levin, who has several pending cases before federal courts regarding lethal injection, has requested that Texas allow witnesses to see the needle insertion before the execution.
“We list it as one of the safeguards that is important to address the risk of suffering during an execution,” she said.
The only way the Arizona ruling could affect Texas executions is if it is appealed and reaches the U.S. Supreme Court. But Levin said the Arizona ruling is “extraordinary,” regardless.
“The recognition by other federal district courts of the risks involved in these executions is an important piece of the landscape,” she said. “While it doesn’t have any effect on the Texas district courts legally speaking, I don’t mean to say it has no effect whatsoever.”
Bottom line: The court’s ruling has no legal impact on Texas, but it could signify a shift in courts’ views of transparency in executions.
- Texas didn't have the busiest execution chamber this year. In fact, it had the lowest number of executions in 20 years.
- Barney Fuller's execution in October for the 2003 shooting deaths in rural East Texas ended Texas' longest gap between executions since 2008.