NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MISSOURI · Freedom of Information · July 10, 2007
Governor signs bill keeping executioners’ identities secret
July 10, 2007 · Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt signed a bill into law on June 30 to suppress the names and identities of those performing and assisting with executions.
Under the new law, any portion of a record that could identify someone as being currently or formerly involved in performing executions is privileged and not subject to subpoena or discovery.
Missouri is not the only death-penalty state to shield the names of executioners from public record. However, the new law makes it the only state to impose penalties for disclosing executioners’ names.
The law allows those involved with executions to bring lawsuits seeking actual and punitive damages against anyone who reveals their names or identifying information without permission from the Department of Corrections director. Further, all members of the execution team are entitled to coverage under the state’s legal expense fund.
The aim of the law is to keep citizens involved in the execution process safe and free from unwanted publicity, Blunt said in a July 2 statement.
“Protecting the safety of all Missourians is one of the most important jobs I have as governor. . . . This legislation will protect those Missourians who assist in fulfilling the state’s execution process as directed by the courts.”
Supporters of the law argue that confidentiality would help Missouri to recruit qualified professionals to perform and assist with executions. For the past year, the state has not been able to find a qualified physician willing to assist in executions in the manner prescribed by a federal judge, The Associated Press reported.
Opponents of the law argue that suppression of this information violates the First Amendment and goes against the public interest since it makes the process less publicly accountable. They also argue that the safety of executioners is not really being threatened by allowing their identities to be publicized.
The Missouri Press Association, along with other groups, opposed the legislation. Doug Crews, the association’s executive director, said the law left virtually no way to get this specific information.
“It’s pretty amazing how locked down this information is,” Crews said. “You can’t get it by subpoena or court order.”
Crews said the law was also problematic because it made the state less accountable to the public for how it performs executions.
“Executing a person is such an event that the public needs to make sure that the process is carried out correctly,” Crews said. “[We need] accountability to the public that the process is carried out correctly.”
The legislation follows the 2006 revelation of the identity of Dr. Alan Doerhoff by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which reported the doctor was denied staff privileges by two hospitals and was reprimanded by the Missouri Board of Healing Arts. Doerhoff had testified anonymously about his failure to follow uniform procedures, which led the courts to halt executions. Though an appeals court has said executions can now proceed, the state says Doerhoff will no longer be used.
In March, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine signed a similar bill exempting the names and identifying characteristics of those involved in performing executions from the state Freedom of Information Act and requiring a civil litigant to show good cause to obtain that information. However, unlike the Missouri law, the Virginia law does not allow those who release executioners’ names to sue.
(Mo. H.B. 820) — JB