Tennessee Supreme Court Weighs Arguments Over Revealing Execution Team
Members of Tennessee's Supreme Court heard arguments on Thursday over the identities of those who conduct executions. Credit: Reading Tom, via flickr

Tennessee Supreme Court Weighs Arguments Over Revealing Execution Team

Members of Tennessee's Supreme Court are appointed by the governor, and in turn appoint the state's attorney general, leading critics to complain the role is "twice-removed" from popular election. (Photo: Reading Tom, via flickr)
Members of Tennessee’s Supreme Court heard arguments on Thursday over the identities of those who conduct executions. Credit: Reading Tom via flickr

Attorneys for the state asked the Tennessee Supreme Court on Thursday to keep the identities of those who carry out executions secret. The arguments come just as two lower courts have found that the names should be released to the attorneys who filed a lawsuit against the state.

The whole disagreement is over whether the public defenders’ office should be able to interview pharmacists, medical examiners and other members of the state’s execution team as part of as suit challenging the death penalty.

Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Smith told the five justices that a small-town pharmacists’ name landing on the front-page of a newspaper as being a part of an execution team could end a career.

But the public defender’s office pushed back by saying without interviews, the lawsuit, and actually debating the heart of the allegations, cannot proceed.

Justice Sharon Lee asked Smith: What if a pharmacist doesn’t have a license, or had some criminal convictions, don’t death row inmates have a right to know if the lethal injection team is qualified? And why should they take the state’s word for it?

Smith said there’s a reason execution team members wear hoods: there’s a stigma attached, and it could lead to worse things like harassment or retaliation. Even though only the attorneys involved with the case would have access to the identifications, Smith argues that there’s too much of a risk of the names leaking.

When pushed about the substance of the public defender’s office case, attorney Steve Kissinger said “the evidence in this case will show that the state of Tennessee, at the time it adopted the one-drug protocol, knew there was substantial dangers in the one-drug protocol.”

But before those allegations can reach trial, the state’s high court has to first rule on how the public defender’s office can continue to gather evidence.

A decision could take several weeks.

Bobby Allyn

Bobby Allyn is a reporter with WPLN. Reach him at ballyn@wpln.org
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