In a speech Thursday, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster expressed concern over the execution secrecy that his office has previously fought hard to defend. The Democrat is calling on the state to create a state-run laboratory to produce the lethal injection drugs itself.
Koster says the expanding secrecy surrounding Missouri’s lethal injection methods should "concern all of us deeply.”
The announcement comes at a time when there are few willing suppliers, which Koster admitted in his speech.
"The vast majority of medical professionals refuse to participate in any aspect of the procedure, believing it conflicts with their Hippocratic Oath," Koster said, according to a copy of his speech, which he delivered to a conference of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis at the Lake of the Ozarks.
To hide the identity of those that are willing, the state made the supplier of its execution drugs a secret last October. An investigation by St. Louis Public Radio revealed that the state’s previous supplier was not licensed to sell in Missouri and had been cited in the past by regulatory agencies.
To keep it a secret, the state was paying this pharmacy a little more than $11,000, all in cash, each execution.
Koster has ardently supported secrecy in the past. But speaking in Lake of the Ozarks, he said the transparency questions should "concern all of us deeply."
“While this creeping secrecy is legal, it may not be prudent, and it merits the attention of state lawmakers,” he said.
The state's new secrecy has spurred numerous lawsuits against the state. I am a part of one lawsuit in conjunction with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. This suit takes issue with how the Department of Corrections has withheld records when fulfilling (or not fulfilling) open records requests.
The Guardian, AP and three Missouri newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, have also filed suit to challenge the secrecy surrounding the execution drugs.
"The inmates argue they have a constitutional right to know who is producing the lethal chemical and to evaluate the sources for themselves," Koster said. "Journalists, meanwhile, have argued that the public has a first amendment right to information regarding a matter of such importance as the death penalty."
Cheryl Pilate, who represents death row inmates, says the announcement comes because politicians know that government secrecy isn’t popular.
“When the state is carrying out its most grave and important function, there needs to be maximum transparency," Pilate said. "Secrecy should be the opposite of what you should have.”
Koster, who said he supports the death penalty, said that having a state-run laboratory to manufacture the drugs -- something no other state has done -- would address issues of transparency.
"For Missouri to maintain lethal injection as its preferred method of execution, it is my belief the legislature should remove market-driven participants and pressures from the system at the earliest opportunity. The legislature should appropriate funds to establish a state-operated, DEA-licensed, laboratory to produce the execution chemicals in our state," Koster said.
"It's not that simple," Jen Moreno, an attorney with Berkeley's Death Penalty Clinic, said. "I don't think it's quite as simple as setting up a lab that makes drugs. The lab has to meet certain requirements, it has to be in compliance with the state's pharmacy board regulations, and there has to be a pharmacist qualified to make and compound drugs."
Pilate said it raised more questions than it answers.
"The proposal for creating a state-run lab appears to be very off the cuff," she said. "It leaves a lot of unanswered questions about regulation and public oversight. There’s not even a mention of what the protocol would be or what drug would be used.”
Koster's office said he was not available for an interview. Gov. Jay Nixon's office did not respond to a request for comment on the attorney general's concerns.
But in his speech, Koster referred to Nixon's important role in the state's executions.
"For 16 years as the state’s legal officer and six more as its clemency officer, Gov. Nixon has been directly involved in 65 executions," Koster said.
"He has overseen more than half of all executions in Missouri since the state took responsibility for administering the death penalty from county sheriffs in 1937. Such a burden on a single individual is without precedent in Missouri’s history, and is nearly unprecedented nationally."
You can read Koster's full speech here.
Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter: @csmcdaniel