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Idaho hasn’t changed execution procedures yet; court decision awaited

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has posted the audio online of this morning's oral arguments on media access to Idaho executions; you can listen here. During the arguments, all three members of the 9th Circuit panel - Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, Judge Marsha Berzon, and Judge Stephen Reinhardt - expressed strong concerns about the state's position in the case, which is that witnesses, including the media, should be excluded from the earlier portion of the lethal injection procedure, including the insertion of IVs to administer the lethal drugs. That specifically contradicts a 2002 9th Circuit case that found that the public has a First Amendment right to see the full execution, including those early stages. Four states in the circuit, including Idaho and Washington, haven't been complying with that ruling, but Arizona has just changed its procedure, allowing witnesses to view the early portion via closed-circuit TV. You can read our full story here at spokesman.com.

“California's been doing it, Ohio's been doing it, Arizona just announced today they're going to do it,” Berzon told Deputy Idaho Attorney General Mike Gilmore. “At least on a preliminary injunction basis, you have put nothing in the record to show that Idaho is different in this regard - that you haven't done.” The state is arguing that allowing witnesses to see the early stages of the execution would violate the privacy of the condemned prisoner and the sensitivities of his friends and family; that it could impact other Death Row inmates; and that it could identify or stress members of the masked execution team, possibly causing them not to want to participate.

The judges also raised questions about the news media's request for a preliminary injunction being rejected on the basis of timeliness, because Richard Leavitt's execution is coming up June 12. They suggested that the upcoming execution, instead, could make the issue “ripe” for decision. When they questioned whether Idaho would have to change its formal protocol for executions in order to draw open the curtain between witnesses and the execution chamber earlier in the process, Gilmore told them, “You would have to change the procedure, but not the protocol.”

At the close of the arguments, the judges asked Gilmore if he'd like to call the warden and see if Idaho would like to change its procedures without an injunction, while the judges had their lunch and before they started writing their opinion. Within a couple of hours, the court had posted that the arguments are complete in the case and it's under advisement.

Jeff Ray, Idaho Department of Corrections spokesman, said in an email, “We have made no changes to the procedures. We are waiting for a ruling.” He was unable to confirm whether or not Gilmore spoke with the warden today. Gilmore told the Associated Press after the arguments that he would try to reach the warden to see if a policy change could be made in time for next week's execution of Leavitt for the 1984 murder of Blackfoot resident Danette Elg.

Charles Brown of Lewiston, attorney for more than a dozen news media outlets and organizations, led by the Associated Press, that brought the lawsuit, said, “I felt that the jurists listened to our arguments and I felt good about how everything went, but we're waiting for the decision.”


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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