Lethal Injections Could Be Blocked In Pennsylvania If Witnesses Not Allowed Full Access

Oct 17, 2012

A federal judge is considering whether to grant a request to block executions in Pennsylvania unless the state agrees to provide full access to witnesses. Two newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Harrisburg Patriot-News, have challenged the commonwealth’s policy of shielding parts of the execution process.

When someone is put to death in Pennsylvania, members of the media are selected to watch, but they cannot see the entire lethal injection process. A curtain is drawn at certain points when the execution team is administering drugs and checking the inmate’s consciousness.

Timothy Gates, the attorney for the state Department of Corrections, said the practice of shielding certain parts of the execution process from the view of selected witnesses follows the law that requires the state to ensure the anonymity of the people involved in the lethal injection.

“By opening the curtain even for one second longer than we have to, we are exposing and potentially increasing the risk that these folks will be identified.  These are members of the community.  These are members that certainly could be subject to ridicule by folks that are anti-, or against the death penalty,” Gates said.

Conversely, Pittsburgh attorney Paul Titus, who is representing the two papers, said no part of the lethal injection process should be hidden from view. 

“Most of the potentially painful parts are done behind closed curtain, so there’s no opportunity for the public witnesses or the press to see what is really happening behind those curtains and we just think that shouldn’t happen,” Titus said.

Titus said his clients want to block any executions in Pennsylvania until the state changes its policy to permit full access of the execution to the press, “to see the condemned from the point that that person is brought into the room until they are dead."

Lawyers for the papers are asking for a federal judge to issue a preliminary injunction. If the judge grants the injunction, executions could still proceed in Pennsylvania, but the curtain would have to stay open.

The challenge arose when it appeared convicted murderer Terrance Williams would be put to death on October 3, but a state judge halted that execution.