"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Monday, May 29, 2017

Appeals court: Names of Texas execution drug suppliers should have been public

Texas' Death House
Texas' Death House
A Texas appeals court ruled Thursday against expanding government secrecy in a case involving the public's right to know who supplies the lethal drugs Texas uses to execute death row inmates.

The decision in favor of openness by the state's 3rd Court of Appeals addressed the broader question about when potential safety concerns should trump the public's right to know how the state is spending taxpayer money.

The ruling likely has a limited effect immediately, however, because the Texas Legislature passed a law requiring state prison officials to keep the identities of the drug makers secret.

But the case has been watched by open-government advocates who said its outcome could be significant in other cases where the state has withheld information by claiming that doing so could create "a substantial threat of physical harm" -- a litmus test put in place by the Texas Supreme Court in 2011 in a case involving gubernatorial security records.

The appeal came after a state district judge in Austin ordered officials to make information about drug suppliers public under the state's open records act.

The lawsuit and appeal were filed by attorneys representing two condemned convicts challenging their impending executions. Both convicts were executed while the case was pending.

Lawyers for the Texas Department Criminal Justice argued that officials need to keep the names and details about the suppliers secret to prevent them from being threatened or harmed by death-penalty opponents.

Attorneys representing the convicts argued that the threats were vague and should not preempt public disclosure.

State officials could appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.

Maurie Levin, an Austin attorney who was 1 of 3 parties who challenged the secrecy, said the ruling is significant because it overruled the state's assertion that the suppliers of lethal drugs were confidential under the Texas Public Information Act.

And while the law has since been changed to allow state officials to keep the information secret, "it's a significant opinion because it affirms that the reasons (the state) used to withhold the information were not appropriate," she said.

"Information may be withheld if disclosure would threat a substantial threat of physical harm," the opinion cites as the standard for releasing information. Levin said the appellate decision affirms that the state did not meet that standard.

Representatives with the Texas Attorney General's Office and the state Department of Criminal Justice said they were reviewing the decision and had no immediate comment.

Source: Houston Chronicle, May 26, 2017

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