Why the media fights for access to executions

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

For the second time in seven months, Idaho is preparing to kill a convicted criminal in the name of all Idahoans.

And for the second time in seven months, the first phase of this procedure could occur behind a shroud of secrecy — in conflict with a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that holds that witnesses should be allowed to view an execution, from start to finish.

That’s why Idaho media groups, including the Statesman, went to U.S. District Court to petition for access to the execution of Richard Leavitt, scheduled for Tuesday. This is why media groups will appear before the 9th Circuit Court today to appeal a district court ruling that sided with the state.

This isn’t one of those First Amendment fights that wins the news media much sympathy from readers and viewers. It plays directly into the critics’ worst stereotypes of a self-important and voyeuristic media. But this is, nonetheless, an important access issue.

Reporters are the public’s witnesses to an execution. The job is every bit that somber, every bit that essential. Reporters are there to confirm what corrections officials will invariably assert after the fact: that an execution was conducted in a humane and dignified manner.

Is there any public function where government should be held more accountable?

Idaho’s execution protocol compromises the media’s public function. If Tuesday’s execution adheres to state guidelines, Leavitt will be brought into the execution chamber, restrained and hooked up to the IV catheters that administer the lethal injection, all before witnesses are ushered into the chamber.

These are important steps in the procedure; the insertion of the catheter is at least as delicate and crucial a step as the actual lethal injection itself. But reporters — and, by extension, Idahoans — are expected to accept on faith that these steps have been carried out smoothly.

Consequently, in a 2002 California case directly on point, the 9th Circuit ruled as follows: “The public has a First Amendment right to view the condemned as he enters the execution chamber, is forcibly restrained and fitted with the apparatus of death.” Yet Idaho did not heed this ruling in the Nov. 18 execution of Paul Ezra Rhoades, and has no intention of heeding it in the Leavitt execution.

Even though he ruled against the media, I can’t be too critical of U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge’s decision Tuesday. Lodge said the media groups have a “strong claim” on First Amendment grounds. He also criticized media groups for filing their complaint on May 22, less than a month before the execution date, and questioned media groups’ assertion that the state could change its protocol without delaying the execution.

“The public has an interest in viewing the whole execution process, but it also has an interest in seeing the judgment enforced without disruption.”

Fair enough.

But I’d also criticize the Correction Department for insisting on a procedure that runs counter to case law, prompting the media groups to file their complaint. I’d also point out that Leavitt faces execution in connection with a 1984 murder.

Idaho doesn’t exactly rush into executions, not that it should. It’s not too much to ask that the state find a way to abide by legal precedent.

ON WISCONSIN

Wisconsin was the nation’s political epicenter Tuesday night, as Gov. Scott Walker survived a bitter and costly recall campaign.

Will these results reverberate as far as Idaho?

State GOP Chairman Norm Semanko breathlessly took up the issue Tuesday, even before the results were announced. In an email to Republicans, Semanko predicted Idaho would become “the next battleground,” as voters debate state superintendent Tom Luna’s Students Come First education overhaul.

Wrote Semanko: “Idaho’s teachers union has already hired a big-labor, union boss from back East to come to Idaho and overturn all the progress we’ve made through the Students Come First education reforms. These recalls and referendums are not about what’s best for children. They’re about who is going to run our schools: local leaders or national union bosses.”

It’s an excuse for Semanko to rile up the base. And a chance for him to again jab at the man hired to run the campaign aimed at repealing the Luna laws — David Williams, who most recently worked on an Ohio campaign advocating for public employees’ collective bargaining rights.

OK, but a battleground?

A more measured take comes from Northwest political blogger and former Statesman editor Randy Stapilus. Stapilus points out, fairly, that the fierce opposition to Walker fizzled over time — so on Tuesday, more than a year after Walker pushed through a law to rescind public employees’ collective bargaining rights, the governor survived a recall challenge.

And that, says Stapilus, is a template for the attempts to overturn the Luna laws, also passed in 2011. “Based on the Wisconsin experience, the odds are: Those referenda have almost no chance of passage.”

Generally speaking, what happens in Wisconsin politics has no direct bearing on Idaho politics. But the Wisconsin vote shows that even the most controversial issues have a limited shelf life.

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

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