Court Orders Full Public Viewing of Pa. Executions

Thursday, 08 Nov 2012 12:19 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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A federal judge has ruled that Pennsylvania’s executions must be carried out in front of witnesses from beginning to end, and that prison officials can’t shield parts of the procedure from public view.
 
U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane ruled the state must provide "full visual and auditory access to executions conducted in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” following a First Amendment lawsuit filed in October by the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Harrisburg Patriot-News, the Inquirer reported Thursday.
 
The decision may affect whether death-row inmate Hubert Michael Jr. will die later today as scheduled. His execution would be the first in the state in 13 years, according to the Inquirer. So far, both the state Supreme Court and a federal judge have refused to requests to stay the execution.
 
Currently, witnesses to executions aren't allowed to view the entire procedure. A curtain  separates the injection, or death chamber, from an observation room.
 
Witnesses are allowed to see the injection procedure, but the curtain is closed when prison personnel first escort the inmate into the chamber and when they check for consciousness before the final injections are started. It's closed again during a coroner's exam after the final drug has been administered.
 
The state Board of Corrections, which is considering an appeal of the court's decision, says the curtains are drawn to protect the identities of prison personnel who carry out the execution.
 
But the newspapers argued in court that being allowed to observe from start to finish and report on it allows the public to determine for itself whether the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
 
"Starting with public hangings up to electrocution, when the press sat in the room with the condemned, up until lethal injections, witnesses saw the whole procedure. That established the First Amendment right to see the whole procedure," said Stephen Shapiro, an attorney representing the newspapers. "The state fears that people involved will be retaliated against, but they have no evidence of that."
                                               

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