Secrecy surrounding Oklahoma's lethal injection drugs is wrong in a democratic society

The recent lawsuit filed by two Oklahoma death-row inmates should remind opponents and proponents of the death penalty why open government is crucial to an informed public’s oversight of its policy-makers. The inmates, scheduled for March executions, sued the Department of Corrections because an Oklahoma law keeps secret – even from the prisoners and the courts – the supplier of the lethal injection drugs used in its executions. The statute even exempts the purchase of the drugs from the state’s Central Purchasing Act. (Okla. Stat. tit. 22, § 1015(B))

The lawsuit asks a judge to declare that secrecy statute unconstitutional and delay the executions until details of the drugs and sources are disclosed to the inmates' attorneys. Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia G. Parrish is scheduled to hear arguments in the case on Tuesday morning. (Lockett v. Evans, CV-2014-330, Okla. Co. Dist. Ct. Feb. 26, 2014).

Such outrageous secrecy in government typically breeds corruption, incompetency and inefficiency.

In this case, the prisoners argue that the secrecy prevents them from asserting their constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. Their attorneys contend that the source of the lethal injection drugs raises the "substantial risk" that the inmates will experience severe pain.

The lawsuit contends that the drug to be used for the pain-relief phase of the execution was likely obtained from a compounding pharmacy. Such drugs are not FDA-approved and are not stringently regulated.

The two inmates aren’t likely to garner much sympathy from fellow Oklahomans. One was convicted of first-degree murder, rape and other horrific crimes. The other was convicted of raping and killing an 11-month-old. It’s easy to imagine the pain, horror and suffering of the victims and to want nothing less for their killers. But we are better than that.

Our state and federal constitutions protect us all – not just these men – from barbaric punishment. “Believing that inhumane punishments had no place in a nation founded upon the principle of liberty, the Founders enacted the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment,” one civil liberties organization notes.

This lawsuit is not only about ensuring that constitutional protection but also about the obligation of a citizenry to fully understand the acts taken on its behalf by the government.

Our state Open Records Act emphasizes that Oklahomans “are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government.” The statute’s purpose is “to ensure and facilitate the public’s right of access to and review of government records so they may efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power.”

An execution is the most intimate act that a government can take against an individual. We have an obligation to know how that action will be committed. Only after an informed debate on this issue can the government truly act with the consent of the governed.


Joey Senat, Ph.D. Associate Professor OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.