JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — As part of a legal settlement, the Missouri Department of Corrections has altered its execution witness-selection procedure policy relating to members of the media.
The department will now permit the Associated Press, the Missouri Press Association, the Missouri Broadcasters’ Association, and a media agency located in Missouri to each designate a reporter to witness executions. Previously, the approval or rejection of a media witness application was solely at the discretion of the director of the Missouri Department of Corrections.
“The government cannot give or deny access to a reporter based on government officials’ feelings about an individual’s reporting,” said Tony Rothert, legal director, ACLU of Missouri. “A free press is vital to ensuring that the government remains accountable to the people. Allowing the government to pick and choose which reporters have access to government functions is a vital threat to fair and unbiased reporting.”
This change in policy comes as part of a settlement from a legal challenge by the ACLU of Missouri in 2016 on behalf of BuzzFeed News investigative journalist Chris McDaniel. McDaniel, who has reported extensively on the death penalty in Missouri, was denied the opportunity to witness any of the 17 executions that the state has carried out since he applied to be a witness in 2014.
The lawsuit challenged the Missouri Department of Corrections’ policy which allowed the director the sole discretion of rejecting or approval a media request
“Executing inmates is the most serious power state governments have,” said McDaniel. “And the public has a right to know the details of how the government is using that power.”
The federal district court had denied Missouri’s motion to dismiss McDaniel’s case in 2016. That decision was upheld by the federal court of appeals earlier this year.