Jefferson City, Mo. – People who carry out executions can sue others who disclose their identities, under a new law that followed reports that a doctor who attended Missouri executions had been sued for malpractice more than 20 times.
Some of the 36 other death penalty states also shield the names of their executioners. But the Missouri measure, which Gov. Matt Blunt signed in private Saturday and announced Monday, is believed to make that state the only one with penalties for disclosing their information, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Supporters say the law is an important protection against threats to workers just doing their jobs. The Department of Corrections said offering confidentiality would help in recruiting medical professionals to assist with executions.
“This legislation will protect those Missourians who assist in fulfilling the state’s execution process as directed by the courts,” Blunt said in a statement.
Critics contend the bill further shrouds the death penalty process in secrecy, violates constitutional free press protections and goes against the public interest.
“It prevents oversight and accountability of the execution process,” said Rita Linhardt, death penalty liaison for the Missouri Catholic Conference, which opposes executions.
The law, which takes effect Aug. 28, followed the revelation last summer by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of the identity of Dr. Alan Doerhoff of Jefferson City. Doerhoff participated in dozens of executions and testified anonymously to a federal judge in a lawsuit challenging lethal injection.
Doerhoff came under criticism after disclosing that he occasionally altered the amount of anesthetic given to inmates, and after news reports that he had been sued for malpractice more than 20 times.
Post-Dispatch editor Arnie Robbins said Monday that the public has a right to know how the execution process works. But he said the newspaper isn’t planning a legal challenge.
The Missouri Press Association hasn’t decided whether to fight the law, but the group’s attorney, Jean Maneke, said the bill is “a direct attack on the public’s right to have people performing public service be properly qualified to do so.”
State Corrections Director Larry Crawford has said the bill should make it easier to recruit a doctor to assist in executions. For the past year, Missouri has been unable to find a willing physician with an expertise in anesthesia, as demanded by a federal judge.
“The value of the public’s need to know is trumped by the safety of both the guard and doctor and their family,” Crawford said in May.
Linhardt questioned that explanation.
“If the safety of the execution team members would’ve really been a major problem, we would’ve seen this bill long before we had 66 executions,” Linhardt said. “There’s a lot of people family members could take their revenge out on, but their identities are not confidential.”
The bill does make the state’s lethal injection protocol an open record, covering things such as the types, amounts and timing of drugs used, but not the doctor and execution team’s names or addresses.
A federal appeals panel ruled last month that Missouri’s lethal injection method is not cruel and unusual punishment, overruling a lower court’s effective freeze on executions. That decision is being appealed.
Missouri is among at least nine states that have put executions on hold as they grapple with whether lethal injection is humane. The state hasn’t executed an inmate since October 2005.