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Judge Considering Whether To Force The State To Release Name Of Execution Pharmacy

(via Wikimedia Commons/California Department of Corrections)

A Cole County judge is considering whether the state of Missouri needs to make more information public about the way it performs executions.

Judge Jon Beetum heard arguments Wednesday in three separate cases filed by various media outlets, advocacy groups and a former state senator seeking the name of the pharmacy that supplies the drugs for executions. The case was brought under the state's open records act. St.Louis Public Radio's Chris McDaniel is a party to one of the lawsuits.

The cases are slightly different in the details, but they all make the same legal argument: the state's Sunshine law requires the department to identify the pharmacy.

The question centers around what the state meant in 2007 when it made the names of the execution team private. That same law also allows the state to keep privileged any record that could indirectly lead to the identity of the team.

The law defines the execution team as:

"those persons who administer lethal gas or lethal chemicals and those persons, such as medical personnel, who provide direct support for the administration of lethal gas or lethal chemicals."

The two sides dispute what is meant by "direct support."

"There are a lot of people who play a role in executions," said Tony Rothert, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. "The law protects what it protects -- those directly involved in the execution."

And a pharmacy is not directly involved, said Ben Graham, a student with Yale's Media Freedom and Information Access clinic. The act of supplying the drugs happens well before the actual execution and is done even if the execution doesn't go forward.

Stephen Doerhoff, an assistant attorney general, argued that you can't support an execution more directly than by providing the chemicals.

"The pharmacies have no other purpose for making them except to execute," he said.

The names of the pharmacies were public until 2013 when the state changed the definition of execution team to bring them under the protection of confidentiality.

Officials were simply using their authority to adapt to a changing climate, said assistant attorney general Mike Spillane. By keeping the names of the pharmacies secret, the state is able to access pentobarbital, and that means executions in the state are more humane.

"The plaintiffs aren't trying to make executions safer," Spillane said. "Their intention is to reveal the pharmacy so they stop supplying the chemicals."

Rothert with the ACLU dismissed that argument.

"There are thousands of pharmacies that provide drugs, so I think that’s just a red herring that somehow knowing who the pharmacy is going to make it impossible to carry out executions," he said.

Beetum did not offer a timeline for when he would rule. The state’s next execution is scheduled for Jan. 28.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.