BOISE, Idaho – Idaho prison officials must release information about lethal injection drugs used in the state’s two most recent executions, a judge has ruled.
Fourth District Judge Lynn Norton ordered Idaho Department of Correction officials this week to release documents about the 2011 execution of Paul Ezra Rhoades and the 2012 execution of Richard Leavitt, unless the state can show that they are sealed by another judge’s order.
Even if they are sealed, the state must turn them over so Norton can review them privately. She said prison officials can redact the names of staffers, physicians, witnesses or others involved in the executions because they are protected from disclosure under Idaho’s public records law.
The way states find, obtain, pay for and store lethal injection drugs has been a key issue in court cases nationwide. Many prison officials try to keep such information secret, in part over fears that suppliers will dry up.
For example, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced in 2016 that it would not provide lethal injection drugs to states and asked states last year to return any lethal injection drugs they had previously obtained.
With most traditional suppliers gone, some states have turned to compounding pharmacies or foreign countries to purchase the drugs.
The ruling Monday comes in a state where executions are rare: Idaho has put only three people to death in the last 30 years. Nine people are on Idaho’s death row, but none is scheduled for execution.
The case stems from a public records request that University of Idaho law professor Aliza Cover filed last year seeking Idaho’s execution drug purchase orders, receipts, expiration dates and other related documents.
She’s been researching how secrecy surrounding lethal injection might shape society by preventing the public from fully understanding capital punishment.
The Idaho Department of Correction refused to provide the documents, saying they were protected from release. Cover sued for the documents in February, contending the state was being arbitrary and capricious in the way it responds to public record requests. The ACLU of Idaho is representing the professor in the lawsuit.
Correction department Deputy Director Jeff Zmuda said in an affidavit that revealing the source of Idaho’s lethal injection drugs would likely expose the source to harassment and pressure and effectively cut off the state’s supply of lethal injection drugs.
The judge rejected the notion that such a situation would pose a threat to public safety.
“If all lethal injection chemicals are unavailable when an execution is scheduled, then such unavailability would not cause an inmate’s release from prison,” Norton wrote in her ruling. “Most states wait for different chemicals to become available while some have adopted alternative forms of execution such as firing squad or electric chair. The court is not aware of any who just release death row inmates into the community.”
Correction department spokesman Jeff Ray declined to comment on the ruling because the court case is not yet completed.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day's top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter