Georgia Labels Makers of Execution Drugs a "State Secret"

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 15 2013 4:18 PM

Georgia Goes to Great Lengths to Make Sure You Don't Know Who Makes Its Execution Drugs

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Abolitionist Action Committee member Bo Chamberlin of Columbus, Ohio, fasts with other death penalty opponents in front of the U.S. Supreme Court June 29, 2009 in Washington, D.C.

File photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Update: A judge has temporarily stayed Hill's execution, the third time in the past year that the death-row inmate has been granted a last-second reprieve. According to the Florida Times-Union, the judge issued the stay "after attorneys raised questions about a law prohibiting releasing information involving Georgia’s execution drug supply."

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

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Warren Lee Hill, a Georgia death-row inmate, is scheduled to be executed Monday evening at 7 p.m. You may remember Hill from earlier this year when he was less than 30 minutes from being put to death when two courts issued eleventh-hour stays of execution, sparing his life for at least a little while longer. You may also remember Hill's case because of the specific controversy it entails: His IQ hovers right around the mental-disability line, raising serious questions about whether his execution would violate state law that bans capital punishment for the mentally disabled.

The Guardian on Friday offered up a third reason why Hill's situation is particularly noteworthy that had not previously been widely reported: He is set to become the first Georgia inmate to be executed since the state passed a new secrecy law in March that labels the identity of any company providing the lethal drugs used to kill him as "state secrets."

In an attempt to circumvent international and national scrutiny, the Georgia state assembly passed a law in March that in effect permitted the corrections department to act in secret in seeking to acquire execution drugs. The provision classifies the identity of any person or company providing drugs for use in lethal injections as a "state secret", thereby negating any public right to the information. It also allows the corrections department to keep secret the identity of doctors who collaborate with executions by administering lethal injections in contravention of their ethical code.

The law became that much more relevant last week when the state confirmed that it was still searching for the necessary amount of the lethal drug (pentobarbital) it needs to execute Hill. While the state maintains it will find a way to secure enough of the drug by this evening, it did provide Hill's lawyers the chance to offer this rather damning pull-quote:

Brian Kammer, the [defense[ attorney for Hill, ... said he was "searching for words to express my disgust at this process. The secrecy in this context to me invokes images of lynchings by hooded men – it's very emblematic of an earlier time in the south." Kammer added that in his view this was a "shameful, reprehensible, cowardly way of killing people."

Georgia isn't the only state to pass such laws: Arkansas, South Dakota and Tennessee have also introduced similar shields designed to protect the companies who profit from making the legal drugs. Head on over to the Guardian for more, including the rather absurd places the states are turning to in search of the drugs that are increasingly hard to find thanks to international protests. ("Georgia even turned to an unlicensed company called Dream Pharma that operated out of a driving school in Acton, west London.")

Hill was given his spot on death row after killing a fellow prisoner in August 1990 by beating him to death. He was already serving a life sentence for the 1986 shooting death of his then 18-year-old girlfriend.