ATLANTA (CN) – The 11th Circuit sided with news media organizations Monday, ruling Alabama cannot prevent the press from making the state’s lethal injection execution protocol public and thwarting the state’s zealous efforts to keep its execution methods secret.
In a unanimous ruling, the three-judge panel rejected Alabama’s argument that its execution protocol was not entered into judicial records and therefore should not be accessible by the press.
The 11th Circuit upheld a 2018 ruling by a federal judge in favor of the Associated Press, the Montgomery Advertiser, and Alabama Media Group and affirmed the judge’s grant of the companies’ motion to unseal a redacted version of the execution protocol. The court found the public has a “common law right of access” to the records.
The media companies filed their motion after the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama dismissed death row inmate Doyle Lee Hamm’s complaint challenging the constitutionality of the state’s execution protocol as it applied to him.
Hamm claimed he suffered from various medical conditions which left his veins “severely compromised” and argued that his Eighth Amendment rights would be violated if he was subjected to lethal injection.
After attempting for 2 ½ hours to insert a needle into his veins, state officials called off Hamm’s February 2018 execution. The news outlets filed their motion to intervene in Hamm’s case immediately afterward, submitting requests to view the state’s execution protocol and related records.
The state later agreed not to make a second attempt to execute Hamm.
Although the lethal injection protocol was not formally filed with the court, the 11th Circuit agreed the protocol still qualifies as a “judicial record” because it was submitted to the trial court “to resolve disputed substantive motions in the litigation, was discussed and analyzed by all parties in evidentiary hearings and arguments, and was unambiguously integral to the court’s resolution of the substantive motions in Hamm’s as-applied challenge to the protocol.”
Writing for the panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson wrote, “Judicial records provide grounds upon which a court relies in deciding cases, and thus the public has a valid interest in accessing these records to ensure the continued integrity and transparency of our governmental and judicial offices.”
The 11th Circuit panel found the trial court carefully considered the nature and character of the information in the lethal injection protocol before finding that the protocol and its related records were of public concern.
“The court properly balanced the interests of Alabama and the intervenors, concluding that Alabama had not shown good cause sufficient to overcome the common law right of access,” Wilson, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote.
U.S. Circuit Judges Gerald Tjoflat, a Gerald Ford appointee, and Adalberto Jordan, a Barack Obama appointee, rounded out the panel.
A representative for the Alabama Attorney General’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday evening. It is unclear whether the state will request an en banc rehearing or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.