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Judge orders full media access to executions

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Judge orders full media access to executions05/20/96 CALIFORNIA--A federal District Court in San Francisco ruled in early May that prison…

Judge orders full media access to executions

05/20/96

CALIFORNIA–A federal District Court in San Francisco ruled in early May that prison rules blocking witnesses’ views of most of an execution procedure violated the public’s constitutional right to watch an execution.

In a suit that was filed by news media organizations seeking full access, the judge ordered that the media be permitted to witness the entire lethal-injection procedure of Keith Daniel Williams.

The court ruled that, although the public has no general right of access to prisons, the long tradition of witnesses at executions had created a constitutional right to view the entire process, “from at least just before the time intravenous tubes are inserted to at least just after death,” according to the order.

After the ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) denied the state an emergency stay to block the judge’s order while it appealed the court’s decision.

At the last execution in late February — the state’s first execution by lethal injection — reporters and witnesses were not allowed to view the initial steps of the procedure, including the strapping of the prisoner to the table and the insertion of intravenous tubes into his arm. After the injection was complete, prison officials described the details to reporters, such as the inmate’s last words, how he walked into the chamber, and the difficulty one staff member had in inserting the needle into his vein.

In early April, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed suit on behalf of journalists and First Amendment advocates challenging the secrecy of the procedures.

During the hearing, the media organizations argued that “the public has a right to know what’s going on (and) should not have to rely … on government accounts,” according to attorney David Fried. He pointed out that reporters have always viewed entire executions in the U.S.

Deputy Attorney General Karl Mayer said that the secrecy of the procedure was meant to protect the prison guard’s identities so they would not be subject to more stress and reprisals, according to the Associated Press. (California First Amendment Coalition v. Calderon; Media Counsel: David Fried)