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Editor's Weekly: Shining Light on Execution Controversies

(via Wikimedia Commons/Noahudlis)

Missouri's new execution drug continues to spark controversy -- or, to be more precise, several controversies. The death penalty raises ethical, legal and practical questions. And this situation raises another overarching issue as well -- government secrecy.

This week, reporters Chris McDaniel and Veronique LaCapra of St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon lifted the cloak of secrecy around Missouri's executions a bit. They disclosed that the state is obtaining its lethal drug, pentobarbital, from a compounding pharmacy in Oklahoma that is not licensed to do business in Missouri.

Normally, it's illegal for a compounding pharmacy to sell drugs here without a Missouri license. But experts are unsure whether the state has to follow its own law in this circumstance.

Chris and Veronique spent weeks of painstaking work figuring out where the state was getting the drug. Missouri officials refused to say, citing their interpretation of a state law that requires the names of those participating in the execution team to be kept secret. But a trail of documents pointed to one of three pharmacies in Oklahoma, none of them licensed in Missouri.

Anti-death penalty lawyers have challenged the secrecy in court. Despite a flurry of legal maneuvering recently, it's unclear when the courts will resolve this and other questions related to Missouri's execution procedures. Meanwhile, the state has carried out two executions with pentobarbital; another is scheduled for later this month.

The death penalty is not only a deeply emotional issue but a moral one as well. Lawyers who oppose it use whatever means they can to prevent or delay execution, and that's part of what's going on here. State officials are intent on carrying out the execution of murderers who have been duly tried and convicted and whose crimes are horrific. The state wants to proceed before the controversy grows, and that's part of what's going on here, too.

Whether or not you favor the death penalty, you may want answers to some important questions about how the state carries it out. Those questions include:

  • Why does Missouri require pharmacy licensing if the state feels comfortable ignoring the requirement in this high-stakes circumstance?
  • How can the state be sure the procedure meets constitutional muster if the drug comes from a pharmacy that's not licensed in Missouri?
  • Why are executions proceeding before legal questions about the use of the drug are resolved in court?
  • Why is Missouri insisting that key facts about executions be kept secret?

The answer to the last question seems obvious. In the past, drug suppliers have been less than eager to be associated with executions, and drug manufacturers in some countries are prohibited from involvement. Missouri's previous efforts to use propofol in executions ran aground amid a multi-national controversy. State officials no doubt worry that the supply of pentobarbital might be jeopardized, too, if the name of the supplier becomes public.
Executions are usually carried out in the dark of night. But surely the procedure deserves full scrutiny in the sunlight of public disclosure. The investigation by St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon brought a key part of that procedure out of the shadows. In the best tradition of watchdog journalism, we'll continue to shine light on the actions of public officials and the arguments from all sides as the controversy continues.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.