The Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments recently about whether state officials may withhold from disclosure certain materials and processes used for executions.
The public has a right to know how the state carries out its most significant—and permanent—decision: government-ordered killing.
The case is an appeal by the Virginia Department of Corrections, which was ordered by a Fairfax County judge to release information on execution procedures under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.
It may seem to be a disagreement about the technical aspects of state law, which in some ways it is.
It began with a FOIA request from Del. Scott A. Surovell, D–Fairfax.
Surovell sought the records after learning that the Corrections Department had stockpiled a large supply of chemicals used for lethal injection, including some that had been used in executions in other states and sparked controversies after condemned inmates showed signs of suffering.
State lawyers representing the Corrections Department argued before the Supreme Court that releasing information about execution procedures could create security risks.
The clash over the records came on the heels of a debate of a bill filed earlier this year in the General Assembly that would close nearly all information about executions, including data about the lethal injection drugs used, the vendor who was providing the drugs and even details about the execution room and the electric chair.
The measure, which had the backing of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, nearly passed. Proponents of the bill said that pharmaceutical companies providing lethal injection drugs would be harassed by death penalty foes if they became known.
Surovell said he’s trying to get information about death penalty procedures so he can be better informed when making policy decisions.
Use of the death penalty has been waning in the United States in recent years. Last year, there were 35 executions nationwide—the lowest number since 31 were put to death in 1994.
And in Virginia, once one of the most prolific execution states, just two have been executed in the past five years. Our state still ranks third nationally with 110 deaths since 1976, but it’s doubtful any state will surpass Texas, which has killed 526 since 1976.
Polls show that public opposition to the death penalty has grown in recent years—33 percent of respondents said they were against it in 2014 compared to 16 percent against it 1994.
The reasons are varied, but they include doubts about whether executions actually deter serious crimes and concern that innocent people may be put to death.
Surovell should be commended for demanding information from the Corrections Department—not just because he’s an elected policymaker but because he’s a Virginia resident.
Accountability is critically important in a state function that can’t be reversed. And accountability begins with transparency.