Ric Feld / AP

Georgia Supreme Court upholds right to keep execution drugs secret

Split ruling comes after untested drugs left inmate writhing in agony for 43 minutes before dying

A law shielding the identity of a pharmaceutical firm providing Georgia with lethal injection drugs is constitutional and should not prevent a death row inmate being executed, the state's Supreme Court ruled in a 5-2 vote on Monday.

The ruling comes amid renewed focus on the role of untested — or little tested — drug cocktails in executions. It follows a botched execution last month in Oklahoma during which an inmate writhed in agony on the gurney before finally succumbing to a new drug combination. Oklahoma also keeps the sources of its drugs secret.

Georgia contends it needs the same provision amid a dwindling supply of execution drugs. In upholding the state law, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that, without confidentiality, there was "a significant risk that persons and entities necessary to the execution would become unwilling to participate."

Georgia lawmakers passed the confidentiality measure last year amid concerns over the supply of pentobarbital, a chemical used in the injections. A number of firms, under pressure from anti-death penalty activists, have refused to supply the drug for the purposes of killing inmates.

But state law permits concealing the source of lethal injection drugs from the public, attorneys and judges in court proceedings.

Similar laws in other states face legal challenges, including a lawsuit filed last week by The Associated Press and several other media outlets challenging Missouri's law that prohibits disclosing the name of anyone who is part of the "execution team," which the state interprets to include the drug provider.

Monday’s ruling sets the stage for death row prisoner Warren Lee Hill to be executed. Georgia justices lifted the stay of execution that a lower court granted to him after he challenged the 2013 secrecy law.

Justice P. Harris Hines wrote in the 33-page majority opinion that keeping secret the identity of entities involved can shield them from harassment. Hines said without that confidentiality, there remained a significant risk that entities needed for an execution might be unwilling to participate.

The court concluded: "Georgia's execution process is likely made more timely and orderly by the execution-participant confidentiality statute and, furthermore, that significant personal interests are also protected by it."

The dissenting justices said they worried the secrecy could lead to similar botched executions as in Oklahoma. The inmate in that case, convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett, died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the state administered the execution drug on April 29.

"I fear this state is on a path that, at the very least, denies Hill and other death row inmates their rights to due process and, at the very worst, leads to the macabre results that occurred in Oklahoma," Justice Robert Benham wrote in the dissenting opinion.

Hill, 53, had been scheduled to die by lethal injection last July for beating another inmate to death in 1990 while serving a life sentence for killing his girlfriend, Myra Wright.

One of Hill's attorneys, Brian Kammer, said the defense team was exploring options on how to proceed in the case.

The ruling "effectively affords the state of Georgia carte blanche to alter their lethal injection protocol in any way it sees fit, and to conceal from the public and even the courts the identity and provenance of the chemicals it intends to use to carry out executions," Kammer said in a statement.

Hill's attorneys also have challenged his execution on the grounds that he is mentally disabled, but the U.S. Supreme Court last fall declined to hear the case.

A spokeswoman for Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said he was pleased with the ruling.

Al Jazeera and wires

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