JEFFERSON CITY — With the state’s death penalty procedure stalled in court, Missouri’s House has taken a step to protect members of the execution team from the media and the public.
A bill given approval in the House on Tuesday allows for the creation of an execution team by the Department of Corrections and mandates that the identifies of the team’s members be kept confidential. It also makes knowingly disclosing the identity of a member of the execution team a misdemeanor crime.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Danielle Moore, R-Fulton, said that the Missouri Department of Corrections asked her to propose the bill and that once she was assured by the department that her bill would have no effect on the current legal battle about the constitutionality of the death penalty in the state, she decided to propose the bill.
An identical proposal has also been raised by Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, and is included in a package of crime-related legislation that has been condensed into one bill.
Moore said that under this bill, members of the execution team will be protected from a smear campaign or retaliation. She also said that because of the anonymity afforded to team members under this proposal more people will be willing to participate in state executions.
“The most positive impact that it will have is that physicians who do not perform but assist with the lethal injections will be afforded anonymity unless there is litigation,” Moore said.
Rep. John Burnett, D-Kansas City, is opposed to the legislation, and said that he believes it is not a good idea for the state to limit public access to an event as important as a state execution.
Burnett says that he would be in favor of “reasonable restrictions” on executioner identities, but feels the current legislation goes too far.
Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Hauswirth said that the department is pleased with the initial approval of the bill in the House. Hauswirth cited a July 30, 2006, article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch titled “Behind the mask of the execution doctor” as a reason for the Department of Corrections to recommend the bill.
The article included the name and information of a Jefferson City doctor who helped develop the state’s execution protocol, as well as the name of his wife and his brothers. Hauswirth said that the department asked the Post-Dispatch not to print the doctor’s identity prior to the article’s publication.
Hauswirth said that the story sent “shock waves” through the Department of Corrections and that they now have trouble finding people willing to participate in executions since its publication last July.
“When the Post-Dispatch decided to publish his picture, give his name, his wife’s name, brothers’ names, the Director of the Department felt they crossed the line,” Hauswirth said.
Missouri executions have been on hold since June of last year, when U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. ruled on behalf of a Missouri death row inmate, Michael A. Taylor, who claimed that the methods used in Missouri’s execution pose an unreasonable risk of an excruciating execution.
The Missouri Department of Corrections has appealed Gaitan’s ruling because, according to Hauswirth, it believes the judge has imposed requirements that exceed constitutional standards. The case is currently in front of a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and is awaiting a ruling.