Injection, Yellow Mama or firing squad: Should we execute in secret? 

Published 1:19 am Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Alabama legislature grabbed headlines a couple of weeks ago when the House of Representatives passed HB18, which addresses the death penalty.

Alabama and many other states which had adopted lethal injection as its method of execution are scrambling, because makers of the drugs involved have refused to sell them the drugs for that purpose. The U.S. Supreme Court also is poised to review the drug protocol increasingly used in executions across the country to determine whether the procedure violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

At present, there are 194 people on Alabama’s death row. Of those, 99 are black males; 89 are white males; three are other males; one is a black female; and two are white females.

So Alabama is setting itself up to go back to electrocution as its means of imposing the death penalty, according to most news reports, which included “Yellow Mama” headlines, and file photos of the bright yellow chair to which condemned Alabama prisoners were strapped for electrocution.

The chair was last used in 2002.

But a closer read of HB 18 doesn’t limit the Alabama Department of Corrections to lethal injection and electrocution in carrying out death sentences. It allows “any constitutional method of execution.”

Other states are looking at firing squads. The Oklahoma legislature is consider a bill to allow “nitrogen hypoxia.”

Even more concerning for many is the amendment added on the floor which shields all information about executions from the public. The DOC’s policies and procedures are exempt from the Alabama Administrative Procedure Act, which grants public access to government operations, under the bill as passed by the House.

Similarly, “the name, address, qualifications and other identifying information of any person or entity that manufactures, compounds, prescribes, dispenses, supplies, or administers the drugs or supplies utilized in an execution shall be confidential, shall not be subject to disclosure, and shall not be admissible as evidence or discoverable in any action of any kind in any court or before any tribunal, board, agency or person.”

The same confidentiality applies to any associated with the procedures.

Before Alabama abandoned the Yellow Mama in 2002, I visited the death chamber in Holman Prison. It was as close to an execution as I ever want to be.

But given the Alabama Department of Corrections’ record, its recent history of abuse, especially among female inmates, can we really feel good about shielding any part of its policy from public scrutiny?

Historically, the family of the condemned, the family of the victim, and representative members of the media have been allowed to witness executions. If we allow the process to be as shielded as proposed in HB 18, it doesn’t appear that that practice could continue, nor would detailed records of those executions be kept.

It is often said the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I hope that is the case of this legislation – that an overzealous attempt to protect the manufacturers of lethal injection drugs inadvertently shielded everything about the process from the taxpayers who fund it.

But I am not convinced.