- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The Tennessee Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday in a legal challenge from death row inmates that has already postponed two scheduled executions.

Eleven inmates have sued the state over its lethal injection and electrocution procedures, claiming they are unconstitutional.

As part of that lawsuit, they requested the names of the people who will carry out the executions. The state initially agreed to release the names to the inmates’ attorneys, not to the inmates. But the state later reversed course, declining to release the names at all and putting the larger lawsuit on hold until the dispute is settled.

The dispute also caused the Tennessee Supreme Court to postpone the planned executions of Billy Ray Irick and Edmund Zagorski, marking further delays for a process that already was bogged down. It is unlikely that any of the other nine inmates with execution dates already set will be executed before the lawsuit is decided.

Attorneys for the inmates have said they need the names of the executioners in order to determine whether those people are qualified to carry out their duties.

The names are confidential under the Tennessee Public Records Act. In court documents filed ahead of the hearing, attorneys for the inmates argue that the act governs open records requests but does not protect the identities from discovery in a lawsuit.

In September, the state Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the inmates. Its opinion stated that the identities of the executioners “are relevant because they are either admissible as evidence, or will reasonably lead to admissible evidence.”

The state then appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. In court documents, attorneys for the state say the identities of the individuals are not relevant “because the constitutionality of the (execution) protocol is not dependent upon the identity of the persons executing its provisions.”

The state also argues that those identities are likely to change. Requiring their disclosure would require “a system of continuing discovery and perpetual litigation,” the brief states. “The Eighth Amendment has never been interpreted to grant a condemned inmate such supervisory authority over the execution of his sentence.”

Attorneys for the state say they would be willing to turn over information about the execution team’s qualifications and let the inmates’ attorneys question the team members from behind a screen.

Attorneys for the inmates argue that is not good enough. Besides, they say the state already agreed to turn over the names under an arrangement that would allow them to be known only by attorneys, their staff and any experts they consult. They say the state should honor its agreement.

They also question claims made by the state that releasing the names could put the executioners in danger, saying there is no evidence to back it up.

Once the Supreme Court decides whether the state must release the names, the larger lawsuit can move forward.

Tennessee last executed a prisoner more than five years ago, but legal challenges to the state’s previous lethal injection protocol and the difficulty obtaining at least one of the three drugs it required have prevented any new executions from taking place.

In an effort to overcome those difficulties, the state adopted a new one-drug lethal injection protocol and the General Assembly passed a law allowing prisoners to be electrocuted if that drug was unavailable.

But the changes also brought this new legal challenge.


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