JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Lawyers for Mississippi's prison system asked a judge Monday to declare that the name of any pharmacy that supplies a crucial execution drug is a secret that must not be revealed publicly.
But those seeking that information say such secrecy violates the state's public records law. They demand the Department of Corrections release the information.
"If we're entitled to it under the clear terms of the Public Records Act, then we should get these documents," said Jim Craig, a lawyer for the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. That legal group filed a records request in November seeking information about Mississippi's execution drugs and death penalty procedures.
Both sides made their case Monday before Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Owens, who says she will rule soon on the issue.
Special Assistant Attorney General Paul Barnes says those suing are trying to halt executions in Mississippi by using public pressure to cut the supply of pentobarbital, a barbiturate used to render prisoners unconscious before they're injected with a paralytic agent and a drug that stops their heart.
"The supply of pentobarbital has dried up and it has dried up because of the efforts of death penalty opponents," Barnes said.
He argued that under state law, Owens can declare a record to confidential, privileged or exempt. Craig said such an interpretation "eviscerates" the public records act.
The argument comes as Attorney General Jim Hood is pressing state lawmakers to approve a bill cloaking many aspects of Mississippi executions in secrecy. House Bill 1305 would do much more than just conceal the name of the pharmacy. It would make the names of the executioner and anyone "assisting in the execution in any capacity" exempt from public disclosure. It would also bar the release of names of witnesses without their consent. The proposal says names of drug suppliers and others couldn't even be released in lawsuits, and that anyone releasing any secret information could be sued for monetary damages.
In 2012, the state bought pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy in Grenada, called Brister Brothers, which mixed the drug. But state lawyers said the pharmacy refused to do further business and that the drug maker cut off the supply to Brister Brothers after Craig's group exposed it following an earlier records request.
Barnes said Mississippi has nine units left which will expire in May. Two units are typically used per execution.
Craig said the Grenada pharmacy wasn't harassed or harmed when it was named, and that protesters have a right to target the pharmacy in the same way people protest Mississippi's sole abortion clinic.
The MacArthur Center made another public records request for information and got back 10 partially blacked-out pages, without any of the required legal explanation of why information was redacted. Craig said he believed there were other records that the department has withheld, but Barnes said that wasn't so.
Craig alleged that the department's response is "a stall tactic" to keep information secret until the bill can be passed.
"Our view is that it is willful disobedience and that it is mainly to try to run out the clock," Craig said, arguing the department should have to pay attorney's fees for purposefully breaking the law.