The Idaho Department of Correction says it will not allow media witnesses to view the entire execution of Paul Ezra Rhoades, and two separate groups are protesting the policy.
Rhoades is scheduled to die by lethal injection Friday, making him the first person to be executed under Idaho's new lethal injection guidelines.
Prison officials say to maintain Rhoades' dignity, they won't allow witnesses to view him being restrained or having the IVs inserted. They also said changing the procedure now could be disruptive.
But a group of Idaho news organizations say that policy conflicts with a 2002 federal court ruling that found the public, through the media, must be allowed to view executions in their entirety. The news organizations have asked the state to reconsider.
In a separate effort, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho is also protesting the restricted access. The ACLU contends that if the execution can't be carried out in compliance with federal court rulings, it must be postponed.
Rhoades was sentenced to death for the 1987 kidnappings and murders of 34-year-old Idaho Falls teacher Susan Michelbacher and 21-year-old newlywed and Blackfoot convenience store clerk Stacy Dawn Baldwin. He was also sentenced to life in prison for the 1987 murder of 20-year-old Idaho Falls convenience store clerk Nolan Haddon.
The Associated Press first learned late last week that the Department of Correction intended to restrict witness viewing to after the IVs were inserted. The organization asked department director Brent Reinke to allow the media to view the entire execution process. On Tuesday, Correction Department spokesman Jeff Ray said the state had considered the request but decided against it.
"The procedures were developed so that we would preserve the dignity of the offender," Ray said in an email to the AP. "After discussing the matter with Director Reinke and legal counsel we have chosen to follow the procedures as they are written."
The AP then joined with the Idaho Press Club, the Newspaper Association of Idaho, the Idaho State Broadcasters Association, The Post Register, the Blackfoot Morning News, the Idaho State Journal, the Idaho Statesman, the Idaho Press-Tribune and the Lewiston Morning Tribune to formally urge the department to reconsider. In a letter to Reinke and state attorneys, the news organizations' attorney, Charles Brown, pointed out that the public holds a First Amendment right to view all aspects of the execution.
Brown noted a 9th U.S. Circuit Court ruling arising out of a lawsuit between the First Amendment Coalition and Jeanne Woodford, the warden of San Quentin prison in California. The federal appeals court found that allowing the public to view executions, through the media, plays a significant role in the functioning of capital punishment.
"To determine whether lethal injection executions are fairly and humanely administered, or whether they ever can be, citizens must have reliable information about the 'initial procedures' which are invasive, possibly painful and may give rise to serious complications," the 9th Circuit wrote in that opinion.
Wednesday evening, Reinke sent a formal response, again declining to allow the media witnesses to view the full execution.
"The changes you requested at this late hour to IDOC's execution procedures would have a potentially disruptive effect on the entire process. Among other things, it could compromise the anonymity of members of IDOC's execution team," Reinke wrote in the email.
The director said his department was aware of the 9th Circuit's ruling but contended it was based on facts unique to California.
"In the months to come we shall review every aspect of Friday's execution. As we do, we shall welcome your clients' input on how we can improve this process," Reinke wrote.
The 9th Circuit ruling addressed California prison officials' concerns that allowing viewing of the entire execution in that state would allow reporters to figure out the identity of execution teams. In that case, the court found that surgical garb including facemasks could effectively conceal the identities of the team, and the judges noted that even if media witnesses were kept out of the room until the execution team left the area, a condemned inmate could easily reveal their identities by giving their names in his final statement.
In its separate effort, the ACLU of Idaho sent a letter to the Idaho Department of Correction on Tuesday citing the same 9th Circuit case. The letter said the "initial procedures," such as bringing a condemned inmate into a death chamber, strapping him or her down and inserting IVs, are "inextricably intertwined with the process of putting the condemned inmate to death."
In the letter, ACLU of Idaho staff attorney Lea Cooper called on the department to postpone all executions until they can "be brought in line with existing federal law."
"The First Amendment rights of prisoners and of the public cannot be sacrificed at the whim of IDOC or any persons involved in administering executions," the ACLU wrote.
It was unclear late Wednesday whether the ACLU or the news organizations planned to take further action, such as a filing a lawsuit, to challenge the Correction Department's policy.