Missouri’s Attorney General Chris Koster (D) once suggested reviving the gas chamber as a method of execution due to legal uncertainty over whether his state could execute prisoners through lethal injection. Last February, it executed a man named Herbert Smulls while Smulls still had an appeal pending before the Supreme Court of the United States. Last year, Missouri — in its zeal to put some of its inmates to death — nearly triggered an international incident that could have deprived every hospital in America of drug that they currently use 50 million times every year.
All of these are facts that can be learned from an article that ran in St. Louis Magazine, entitled “How We Kill: The State of the Death Penalty.” Yet the men and women most likely to be impacted by what this article describes as Missouri’s “history of secrecy and incompetence” will never learn of it if the state’s Department of Corrections has its way. A letter from that corrections department to the magazine informs its editors that the issue containing the death penalty article “has been censored due to content which contains information which can be used to instill violence or hatred among the offender population.” The magazine has appealed this decision, although they admit that they have “little hope that our appeal will be successful.”
The magazine is right to be worried that such an appeal can succeed. The Supreme Court has held that courts “owe ‘substantial deference to the professional judgment of prison administrators,'” and it permitted far more sweeping censorship in another prisons case than simply denying prisoners’ access to a single issue of a single magazine. Nevertheless, as the author of the censored article points out, this one incident is part of a much greater pattern of secrecy surrounding the Missouri death penalty — “when a former execution doctor was shown to be inept, the state passed legislation that made its execution team anonymous. When its drug supplier came into question, the state turned to a secret pharmacy.”
Russell Bucklew, a Missouri prisoner who will undergo lethal injection Wednesday, filed a motion to have his execution videotaped. Bucklew, who has a medical condition that may cause him severe pain during the injection, hopes to capture what any cruel and unusual punishment that befalls him. If Bucklew survives he could use the recorded evidence to fight a second attempt to execute him, or if he experiences “prolonged and excruciating execution or chokes and suffocates to death,” the tape would be used as evidence in any claim from his estate.