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Editor's Weekly: Reporting On Execution Procedures Missouri Wants To Keep Secret

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via Flickr/Nottingham Vet School
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Chris McDaniel this week continued his string of significant reports on Missouri’s execution procedure. With painstaking work over several months, Chris and VeroniqueLaCapra have managed to develop a clear picture of a procedure that officials would rather keep secret. Among the key points they have reported:

  • Missouri has obtained its execution drug, pentobarbital, from the Apothecary Shoppe, an Oklahoma compounding pharmacy not licensed to business here.
  • Missouri officials said the purity of the drug had been assured by a testing lab, but the lab – Analytical Research Laboratories -- is the same one that vouched for a contaminated commercial steroid that killed dozens.
  • Missouri officials have argued that the names of the pharmacy and the testing lab should be kept secret, and even after the names became public, that lawyers should not be able to act on that information.
  • Missouri makes payments related to its executions in cash.
  • An appeals court ruled that lawyers for those on death row cannot argue that a particular execution method is “cruel and unusual” unless they can also establish that a better method exists.

Late Wednesday, Herbert Smulls exhausted his legal appeals and the state used pentobarbital to execute him for the shooting death of Stephen Honickman, a Chesterfield jeweler. Honickman’s wife, who Smulls also shot, said that the appeals process had gone on far too long.
“It was a long day," she said after the delayed execution. "And it could have been done a lot easier — and it was easier on Mr. Smulls. Much more so than it was on my husband and myself.”

As death penalty cases proceed, the spotlight gradually shifts from the victims of heinous crimes to the murderers and their legal challenges. Florence Honickman’s remarks brought the focus back to the anguish Smulls caused. That was important.

But it should in no way diminish respect and concern for victims such as the Honickmans to also hold government officials accountable for the way executions are carried out. The appropriateness of the death penalty itself is one issue. The integrity of government procedures that carry it out is a separate matter.

Our reporting is directed at the latter. We want to lift the curtain of secrecy that has surrounded Missouri’s execution procedures so you can decide for yourself whether the conduct of officials has been appropriate.

Another story by Chris this week explained that three government offices play important roles in the process -- the governor, the Department of Corrections and the attorney general. All have declined our requests to talk about their actions, and Gov. Nixon again this week rebuffed questions.

In coming weeks, St. Louis Public Radio and The Beacon will continue to report on the matter as legislators investigate, lawyers litigate and Missouri plans yet another execution.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.

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