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With Injunction Denied, Death-Row Inmate Faces Execution Before His Sunshine Law Case Is Heard

Monday's "St. Louis on the Air" will cover the pressing legal issues of the day.
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On Friday, a Cole County judge denied a death row inmate's request to order the state to turn over records on the lethal drugs that will be injected into him.

Inmate John Winfield attempted to speed up the legal process with a preliminary injunction because his execution is scheduled for June 18.

His lawyer, Joe Luby, argued that the Missouri Department of Corrections is violating the sunshine law by keeping secret the identity of the supplier of the execution drug.

"The General Assembly has set the balance by decreeing that public records, not subject to an exception, must be disclosed," wrote Judge Jon Beetem in the Cole County 19th Judicial Circuit Court in his order. "That balance is protected by providing a process, i.e. a lawsuit and judgment, before compelling disclosure when there is a dispute." (Emphasis his.)

Speaking before the judge on Wednesday, Luby argued that it was "a matter of simple dignity."

"Someone being injected with something should know what's in it," Luby said.

Attorney General Chris Koster's office argued that the secrecy is important so that the state can carry out executions. Officials say the people supplying for executions wouldn't want to participate if the public was aware of their involvement.

As we reported on Wednesday:

The crux of the argument is whether the state has a right to withhold records on the drugs. A law passed in 2007 prohibits disclosure of the identities of those who carry out executions. In October 2013, the Department of Corrections expanded the execution team to say it now encompasses the supplier. Death penalty opponents and open government advocates say the statute can't apply to the suppliers because they don't participate in the execution directly.

In his order, Beetem devoted little attention to that argument.

"The court notes that the execution protocol statute grants the director of the Department of Corrections the discretion to define the execution team in the protocol," Beetem wrote. "The director has chosen to define that team rather broadly. That definition, at first glance, would preclude the disclosure requested by the plaintiff [Winfield], though this order is not to be construed as a finding to that effect."

Beetem instead focused his order on the need for a trial before he rules on whether the records are open.

"Granting a preliminary injunction would upset that balance and could lead to the parade of horribles offered by the [state] without first affording them their day in court," Beetem wrote.

Numerous other lawsuits are pending against the state for withholding records on the execution drug. I am part of one lawsuit in conjunction with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. This suit takes issue with how the Department of Corrections has withheld records when fulfilling (or not fulfilling) open records requests.

The Guardian, AP and three Missouri newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, have also filed suit to challenge the secrecy surrounding the execution drugs.

Winfield is scheduled to be executed June 18 for murdering two people in St. Louis County in 1996. The denial of the preliminary injunction makes it likely that he will be put to death before a judgment is rendered on whether he should receive the records.

Beetem has set another hearing for June 13.

Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter@csmcdaniel 

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