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Prison officials ask court to dismiss ACLU execution lawsuit

Prison officials ask court to dismiss ACLU execution lawsuit

The ACLU and two publications want more access.

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Read the state's motion to dismiss the ACLU's lawsuit

Document: Lawsuit contends right of press to view executions without obstruction from officials

OKLAHOMA CITY — State prison officials sought Tuesday to dismiss a federal lawsuit that argues journalists should have an unobstructed view of Oklahoma’s executions.

A lawsuit filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union and two publications seeks to expand access to executions and give journalists who witness “unprecedented privileges,” argued a response filed Tuesday on behalf of Oklahoma prison officials.

“Plaintiffs seek to expose employees of the Department of Corrections to intense scrutiny during the stressful and delicate stages of executions,” the court filing states.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed in federal court in the Western District of Oklahoma, comes in response to the April 29 botched execution of Clayton Lockett. The organization seeks to stop Oklahoma prison officials from hiding any portions of an execution from media witnesses, on behalf of The Guardian US and The Oklahoma Observer.

“Contrary to Plaintiffs’ claims that their reporting serves as the bulwark to preserve the integrity of the Eighth Amendment, case law reveals that courts view such eyewitness testimony as speculative, equivocal, and generally unhelpful with regards to whether an inmate suffers from the execution. The general lack of utility of the salacious details of an execution shows that press presence does not play a particularly positive role worthy of a First Amendment right of special access,” wrote Assistant Attorney General M. Daniel Weitman in the state’s response. Lockett’s execution took 43 minutes while he strained, mumbled and writhed on the gurney after executioners injected him with a mix of drugs never before used in an Oklahoma lethal injection. The execution was halted shortly before he died, and prison officials closed the blinds, preventing media witnesses from observing what happened after it was determined something had gone wrong.

By doing so, Oklahoma violated the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of the press to witness executions so the public can be informed about the government’s actions and hold it accountable, according to ACLU Staff Attorney Lee Rowland. The ACLU and its plaintiffs seek an injunction to prevent Oklahoma from filtering any news reports when the next scheduled lethal injection takes place on Nov. 13, the date on which Charles Warner is set to be executed. He was originally scheduled to die the same night as Lockett, but his execution was stayed after the first lethal injection went awry. Warner was sentenced to die for the 1997 murder and rape of an 11-month-old infant in Oklahoma City.

Lockett was executed for the 1999 slaying of Stephanie Neiman, 19, of Perry.

He and two accomplices shot Neiman and left her for dead in a ditch after assaulting her and two of her friends.

Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477


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