- Associated Press - Friday, September 18, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Manuals used to guide executions in Virginia are exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests and do not have to be released to the public, The Virginia Supreme Court ruled.

In its ruling, the court said current and prior manuals are covered by a public-safety exemption that does not explicitly require the release of any non-exempt portion. The exemption allows records such as architectural drawings to remain confidential for security reasons, multiple media outlets reported.

“The wording of the statute applies the exclusion to the entire drawing, manual, minutes or record and makes it disclosable only at the discretion of the custodian,” Justice Cleo E. Powell wrote for the majority.

Wednesday’s ruling overturned a September 2014 decision by then-Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Janet M. Roush ordering the Department of Corrections to release the execution manual and several other documents. Roush was appointed as justice after the Supreme Court heard the case in June.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the circuit court to reconsider the release of the other documents, which include the wiring and operation of the electric chair and the schematic of the execution chamber at the Greensville Correction Center in Jarrat.

“The decision addresses the department’s security concerns,” Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Kinney said. “We are pleased with the court’s decision regarding the execution manual.”

The department has argued that prisoners or protesters could exploit the information.

“This case is not about Virginia trying to keep its execution protocols secret,” said Assistant Attorney General Margaret O’Shea. Instead, she argued, it was answering this question: “Does the Department have to eviscerate the security of a maximum security prison?”

Del. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, had submitted a FOIA request for the material last year amid debate over how the state carries out the death penalty.

“What they’ve done here is really scary,” Surovell said. “They’ve incentivized government officials to sprinkle so-called ‘safety provisions’ in any records they don’t want the government to see, and they’ve also directed the courts that they have to give great deference to government officials about what documents the government officials want to produce.”

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the ruling could affect citizen access to other records that may include both exempt and non-exempt information.

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