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Louisiana State Capitol

Death penalty supporters in the Louisiana Legislature are trying to shroud the source of the state's execution drugs in secrecy, a move intended to make it easier to put condemned inmates to death.

Louisiana prison officials have struggled for years to obtain the lethal drugs necessary to execute death row inmates after the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the drugs began refusing to sell them to prisons carrying out lethal injections.

More than a dozen other states have enacted laws designed to shield details about executions and the supply chain for the execution drugs, said state Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, a Hammond Republican who authored of the proposal, House Bill 258.

Cloaking the source of drugs in strict government secrecy might allow Louisiana prison officials to buy execution drugs from pharmaceutical suppliers unwilling to be publicly tied to lethal injections, Muscarello said.

"The families of the victims wait patiently for decades for us to follow through with this task" of executing death-row inmates, Muscarello said. "It consumes them and we need to give them the closure they expect."

Muscarello argued his proposal "is not about whether the death penalty is right or wrong," though support and opposition to his secrecy proposal fell along similar lines to the battle over the death penalty.

The state hasn't carried out an execution since 2010 and has only put three inmates to death in the past two decades, a figure that's frustrated the death penalty's supporters and many relatives of the victims of those on death row.

Some other states, including neighboring Texas, have apparently turned to compounding pharmacies — specialty shops that mix their own medications from raw materials — to obtain the cocktail of drugs necessary for executions.

But efforts by Louisiana prison officials to acquire enough drugs to carry out an execution have repeatedly failed in recent years.

Lethal injection is the only form of execution permitted under state law.

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Critics decried Muscarello's proposal as an assault on open government that'd hide critical aspects of what's perhaps the state's gravest and most controversial action — an execution — from public scrutiny.

"Transparency is a prerequisite to ensure that the death penalty is being carried out in a just and legal way," said Robert Tasman, the executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, which strongly opposed the death penalty. "A lack of transparency shows a lack of respect for life itself and secrecy around executions obstructs efforts to safeguard the right to life.”

"Isn’t it the taxpayers that’s paying for that medicine?" asked state Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport. "Well, why would we say to them, ‘You can’t know what it’s being purchased at?'"

Muscarello said he's generally an advocate of open government but contended that acquiring execution drugs and carrying out death sentences required shielding those particular records from public view.

"The problem is we made a commitment to the taxpayer when we told them that we’d put the persons to death and we’re not doing that," said Muscarello. "Sometimes there are sacrifices that are made."

Michelle Ghetti, an ardent death-penalty supporter who works for Attorney General Jeff Landry as the state's deputy solicitor general, said other states with similar secrecy laws have succeeded in acquiring drugs and carrying out executions.

Landry, a Republican and a full-throated advocate of capital punishment, has accused Gov. John Bel Edwards of not doing enough to carry out executions in Louisiana.

Edwards, a Democrat, has been reticent about his personal views on execution but has repeatedly stated he'd carry out state law.

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But the state's struggle to carry out death sentences long predate Edwards' tenure in the Governor's Mansion. Corrections officials under Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, failed repeatedly to obtain execution drugs after major drugmakers began blocking sales and the state's existing supply expired.

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Muscarello's proposal largely mirrors a 2014 bill by then-Rep. Joe Lopinto, a Metairie Republican who's now the sheriff of Jefferson Parish. That bill, endorsed by Jindal, appeared set for passage but was pulled by Lopinto amid an unrelated legislative spat with the governor and just after a pair of botched executions in other states using drugs from compound pharmacies made national headlines.

This year's proposal advanced out of the House Criminal Justice Committee without objection on Wednesday and now moves toward the full House.


Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.