- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi House has passed a bill that not only makes the details surrounding state executions secret, but allows lawsuits against anyone who discloses the secrets.

House Bill 1305, an apparent reaction to a lawsuit seeking information related to execution drugs, would provide that the names of the executioner and anyone “assisting in the execution in any capacity” would be exempt from public disclosure, apparently including people mandated by law to be present. It would also bar the release of names of witnesses without their consent, and would conceal the identity of the suppliers of drugs used to execute prisoners.

A number of other states including Missouri and Georgia have passed laws shielding information about execution drugs. Earlier this month, proposed legislation to broadly expand secrecy surrounding Idaho executions was put on hold. In Ohio, the House in December approved shielding the source of the state’s drugs for a minimum of 20 years. Georgia’s law that keeps the source of its drugs secret is constitutional, the state’s highest court ruled last May.

But Jim Craig, a lawyer for a group suing for the information in Mississippi, says the state’s proposal seems to go further. The proposal says those names could not even be released in lawsuits. Anyone who releases such names could be sued for actual and punitive money damages.

House Judiciary Committee B Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood had requested the bill.

“The problem is the identities of the execution team are being sought out,” Gipson told lawmakers.

“Don’t you think this bill is a little too far-reaching to prohibit this information from being available through a legal proceeding?” asked Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens.

Gipson said he believed lawmakers would still be able to hold hearings on any execution problems despite the bill.

The House passed the bill 82-34, rejecting an attempt by Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, to outlaw the death penalty. The bill goes to the Senate for more debate, where a similar bill died at a deadline for action Thursday.

Reporters witness executions in Mississippi, and are usually present in rooms with other witnesses and can see everyone inside the execution chamber. The bill appears to bar reporters from printing the names of at least some people they recognize. Restraining reporters before they act has been found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hood’s office didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said the department supports the bill.

Opponents of the death penalty have been trying to limit states’ ability to execute by finding the names of drug suppliers and pressuring them.

“I would not want a family member to know that I supply the drugs,” said Rep. Forrest Hamilton, R-Olive Branch, a pharmacist.

Last year, lawyers challenged the use of drugs from a compounding pharmacy in Grenada. Nationwide, concerns have been raised about botched executions because of novel drug combinations, as older sets of drugs become unavailable. Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona have all experienced problem-filled executions.

The MacArthur Justice Center sued Mississippi in Hinds County Chancery Court earlier this year, claiming the Department of Corrections had illegally refused to comply with a public records request. That request sought information about execution protocols, drugs used and their suppliers, but did not say it was seeking the name of the executioner.

“Without information about the pharmacies that compound the drugs and the raw ingredients used, it is impossible to say whether a compounded product will be effective and work as intended,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi.

She and Mississippi Press Association Executive Director Layne Bruce said that government transparency is particularly important in executions.

“Fundamentally the act of a state execution should be subject to much openness,” Bruce said in a statement. “The public in general and the victims and families specifically are entitled to this.”

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Online: House Bill 1305: https://bit.ly/1uKBLZ8

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy

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