Update: On Thursday afternoon, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Gail S. Tusan granted a stay of Hill’s execution, concluding, among other things, that the Georgia “state secrets” law “implicated” the First Amendment by blocking information she deemed “essential to the determination of the efficacy and potency of lethal injection drugs.” Georgia officials immediately vowed to appeal the ruling.
The pending execution of a cognitively disabled man in Georgia has brought to national light a new law there that has profound first amendment implications for journalists covering death penalty cases.
The so-called “Lethal Injection Secrecy Act,” passed in March, makes the identities of those companies and individuals who make and supply lethal injection drugs a “state secret” that may be shielded from disclosure to the public, the media, or even the judiciary. As a result of the measure, information about the purity and potency of the drugs that are to be used to carry out executions in the state are beyond the public’s reach. So are the identities of the doctors hired by the state to oversee executions.
The shield law was enacted at the request of the state’s Department of Corrections after Georgia officials were roundly criticized in 2011 and 2012 for seeking lethal injection drugs from unlicensed sources as they scrambled to replace diminishing supplies. In 2011, for example, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized Georgia’s supply of “lethal injection” drugs because of federal concerns about how those drugs were obtained by state officials. The measure also directly benefits the dwindling number of pharmaceutical companies that produce and distribute the lethal drugs and that have been the subject of protests and boycotts for their role in the increasingly controversial practice of lethal injections.