Shining a Light on VA's Death Row

Mar 18, 2015

This week civic groups and nonprofits are taking a closer look at the importance of open government and freedom of information for Sunshine week.  

Sunshine is absent in the death chambers of Virginia, where the public has no access to basic information about how inmates are killed. Policies and procedures outlining the process are concealed from view. Training manuals are closely guarded. Even specific details about how executions are carried out are kept secret. 

"I'm not clear what there is to hide here."

That's Delegate Scott Surovell, a Democrat from Fairfax County, who filed a lawsuit to force the Department of Corrections to hand over documents and information.

"I just don't understand why killing a person -- why the processes and the drugs and the methods used to kill a person ought to be so secret. There's no really good public policy justification for it."

Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran says the need for transparency should be tempered by a need for security. 

"We want to ensure the safety of the individuals at corrections who perform this function, their identities, the procedures with respect to the details of how an execution is performed -- all of that has a legitimate public safety risk."

Surovell is not interested in the names of those carrying out the executions, but he does question what kind of security risks would be created by sharing the policy manuals. 

"I've never really completely understood what the safety concern is."

Moran says critics don't understand the safety concerns for a reason.

"Well you wouldn't because we are not going to tell people what the security risks are. That's sort of the balancing that we are attempting to achieve."

During the last General Assembly session, lawmakers considered a bill to keep the drugs used in lethal injection secret. That effort failed, playing out against a backdrop of a political debate about the merits of capital punishment.

"There are many activists out there who think that capital punishment should be abolished."

That's Senator Tommy Norment, a Republican from Williamsburg. He says opening up information about the drugs used in the process could give ammunition to critics of capital punishment.

"It would further enhance potential arguments, spurious as they may be, that the specific mixture of that cocktail somehow constituted a cruel and unusual punishment."

Even though legislation to shield information about the drugs failed in the General Assembly, Surovell says the process is still shrouded in secrecy. 

"There is no disclosure as to how the drugs are going to be administered, what process is going to be used, what type of person is going to be used, the qualifications and training and licensing of those people, which veins are going to be used to inject them."

Details about the electric chair are just as secretive, leading Surovell to wonder how a Death Row inmate could possibly make a rational decision about which method of execution to choose.

"I think these people deserve maximum information as to how they are going to be killed before they make that choice."

Advocates for open government say the lack of transparency for documents outlining the death penalty shows a larger problem in the commonwealth. 

"Virginia has a reputation for having one of the weakest public access to documents and information laws out there."

That's Bill Allison, senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation.

"In this day an age, when transparency is one of the metrics on which citizens judge their governments, Virginia should be doing a lot more to make information available."

One judge in Fairfax County has already ruled that the Department of Corrections should turn over the information, although state leaders have managed to keep it secret as the case is appealed. The Virginia Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in April, and a decision is expected by June.