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Judge rejects lawsuit seeking full access to executions

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Jan. 11, 2008  ·   There is no First Amendment right guaranteeing journalists access to every step of an execution…

Jan. 11, 2008  ·   There is no First Amendment right guaranteeing journalists access to every step of an execution in Arkansas, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday. “The Supreme Court has never recognized a First Amendment right of access to executions,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright in her order granting a motion to dismiss the suit.

“To date, only one federal appeals court has held that the First Amendment includes a right of public access to executions,” she noted, in reference to a 2002 opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.). Arkansas falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis (8th Cir).

While state law holds that six to 12 witnesses must be present at every execution, the state does not allow media and public witnesses to watch as intravenous tubes are inserted and removed from a prisoner about to be executed. Prison officials open curtains to the execution chamber for witnesses after the prisoner has already been strapped to the gurney and close them again once the inmate is dead.

The lawsuit, filed by the Northwest Arkansas Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Arkansas Times and Times editor Max Brantley, asserted that these behind-the-scenes procedures ought to be viewed. “Until the entire execution process is open to public view, it is a process lacking in accountability,” Brantley said. “We had hoped, of course, that we wouldn’t have to assert a constitutional right to witness an execution. We had hoped that the Arkansas Correction Department, which has broad latitude to decide who may see an execution and at what point, would come down on the side of transparency.”

He said he and others have not decided whether to appeal the ruling.

(The Arkansas Times Inc. v. Norris)Jennifer Koons

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