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New Oklahoma policies restrict media access to executions

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  1. Newsgathering
A new policy established by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections will severely restrict the media’s ability to witness state executions.…

A new policy established by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections will severely restrict the media’s ability to witness state executions.

The new rules, which went into effect September 30, cut the number of media witnesses at any given execution from 12 to five, and give state officials discretion to close the viewing room or remove witnesses from the facility altogether if the condemned remains conscious five minutes into the lethal injection procedure.

The department already is facing a federal lawsuit that alleges its previous policies were too restrictive. Two news organizations — The Oklahoma Observer and Guardian US — along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma, sued the department in August following the mismanaged execution of Clayton Lockett, which took nearly two hours and during which officials closed the blinds to the viewing room.

While the blinds were closed, witnesses could hear sounds “indicating pain and suffering,” but were unable to witness the scene, according to the complaint. Officials eventually called off the execution, only to pronounce Lockett dead 10 minutes later.

In the lawsuit, Oklahoma Observer v. Patton, the plaintiffs assert that department officials deprived the media of their First Amendment and state constitutional rights to observe the “entire procedure from the moment the condemned enters the execution chamber until the time the condemned is declared dead.”

According to a portion of the new rules covering the "Preparation and Administration of Chemicals," if, after five minutes, “the offender remains conscious,” the director of corrections “may order the curtains to the witness viewing room be closed, and if necessary, for witnesses to be removed from the facility.” Nothing in the rules describes how the director is to exercise discretion to limit views of the chamber or remove witnesses.

By contrast, the old rules provided that media representatives would be escorted from the viewing chamber back to the media center “after completion of the execution.”

The new rules also slash the number of media witnesses from 12 to five. One seat will be reserved for local media, one for the Associated Press, and other outlets will enter a “lottery” for the remaining three spots, with preference given to Oklahoma-based media.

The new rules extend the existing ban on all electronic or mechanical recording devices, including cameras and tape recorders.

Oklahoma temporarily halted executions following the Lockett incident. During the hiatus, the corrections department revised its policies for carrying out all aspects of the executions, including the new rules for media and other witnesses.

The next execution in Oklahoma is scheduled for November 13, according to the Southwest Times-Record.