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Bill to give legislative oversight to state execution procedures


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Springfield Republican House Rep. Eric Burlison filed a bill this week giving the legislature increased authority over rules promulgated by the Department of Corrections. Specifically, rules related to department execution procedures would now have to pass through the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

Currently the DOC is exempt from JCAR review of any kind, and Burlison’s bill comes as Missouri’s lethal injection methods face national scrutiny over the source of the drug used in executions and the secrecy surrounding the change from the traditional 3-drug cocktail to the pentobarbital, the drug currently employed in Missouri executions.

Missouri has been scrambling to find a legal way to execute death row inmates since the traditional 3-drug cocktail used in lethal injections stopped being produced by most compounding pharmacies early last year. After an attempt to use the widely administered general anesthetic propofol — a move which brought backlash from its European Union manufacturers and domestic criticism from the medical community — Missouri’s DOC announced it was expanding it’s “execution team,” definitions and using pentobarbital, commonly used to put down animals.

Rep. Eric Burlison
Rep. Eric Burlison

But the decision to change drugs as well as drug suppliers, along with the decision to keep the physicians reviewing the new procedure anonymous were made with no legislative oversight, which some lawmakers like Burlison take issue with.

Burlison, who is in favor of the death penalty and served as a state’s witness to one execution said he saw the bill, as an issue in transparency, not capital punishment, and that support or opposition to executions shouldn’t measure support of his bill. After witnessing an execution Burlison said he left “trusting the process.” However, the secrecy surrounding new execution procedures, he says, is putting the criminal justice system at risk.

“It’s unfortunate that the Governor’s office and department made these changes without any public input or transparency,” Burlison said. “Because it is a process we need to be able to trust.

An investigation by St. Louis Public Radio has shown that Missouri is purchasing its execution drug, with cash, from a pharmacy in Oklahoma, a pharmacy not licensed to sell drugs within the state of Missouri.

Legal challenges to the new execution method argue that if pentobarbital is not administered properly or if it becomes contaminated it can lead to extreme pain and a longer death. Lawsuits from multiple death-row inmates and the ACLU appear to have tentatively united anti-capital punishment crusaders and government transparency enthusiasts — both of which are eyeing the new DOC procedures anxiously.

Missouri officials have indicated that a medical team has approved their execution method, but that team remains anonymous thanks to DOC’s expanded execution team definitions. The Department of Corrections itself refuses to comment on any execution related matter.

“It’s a pretty bi-partisan issue,” Burlison said, remarking that the bil has co-sponsors from both parties. “It’s extremely important as an issue and I think conducting all of this in secret jeopardizes the process.”