Ohio court rejects 3 inmates' 1st Amendment lethal injection case

The inmates argued the law violated free speech rights by restricting information that informs the public debate over capital punishment

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins  
Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A federal appeals court on Wednesday rejected a challenge by three death row inmates who sued over an Ohio law that shields the names of companies providing lethal injection drugs.

The inmates argue the 2015 law, meant to help jump start executions in the state, violates free speech rights. They contend it restricts information that helps inform the public debate over capital punishment.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to uphold a judge's decision last year that the inmates' challenge was not tied to "actual or imminent injuries."

While a problematic execution is a serious matter, where constitutional rights are concerned, "the existence of deficiencies in this case is only conjectural or hypothetical," wrote Judge Eugene Siler.

State attorneys argued nothing in the law infringes on prisoners' First Amendment rights or affects their ability to argue issues in court. They said the law denies inmates access to information in the state's hands, which is not the same as suppressing free speech.

The law was passed at a time when Ohio struggled to find lethal injection drugs as pharmaceutical companies put them off limits for executions.

Last month, the state announced a new three-drug method and said it would carry out three executions beginning in January. Consistent with the law, prison officials won't say where they got the drugs.

In a dissent to Wednesday's ruling, Judge Jane Stranch reviewed Ohio's last execution in January 2014, when inmate Dennis McGuire gasped and snorted for 26 minutes after being administered a never-tried two-drug method. Ohio abandoned that procedure afterward.

"This horrifying tale of an execution gone wrong underscores what is at stake in this litigation," said Stranch, who called the law's purpose "deeply troubling."

The inmates' lawyers say the ruling lessens government transparency and free speech.

The law "essentially creates a new category of speech exempt from the Constitution's First Amendment, despite the public's strong vested interest in access to information about the death penalty," said Tim Sweeney, whose client, Ronald Phillips, is scheduled for execution in January.

Attorneys are deciding their next step, Sweeney said.

A separate lawsuit is challenging Ohio's new method, which the state plans to use on Phillips on Jan. 12.

Phillip was sentenced to die for raping and killing Sheila Marie Evans, the 3-year-old daughter of his girlfriend, in Akron in 1993.

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