NASHVILLE (CN) – Prisoners put to death by the state have a right to know who is carrying out the execution, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled.
A group of death row inmates sued Tennessee Department of Correction officials last year, challenging the state’s lethal injection protocol. They claim that lethal injection has a risk of pain and suffering that may cause a lingering death.
In order to properly serve a number of John Doe defendants — those responsible for implementing the execution process — the inmates asked the state for their names.
The state objected, saying that the names of those individuals are not relevant and that they are confidential under its public records law. Instead, the inmates were offered the chance to look at the qualifications of the execution team.
The prisoners filed a motion to compel the names and the Davidson County Chancery Court ordered the disclosure of executioners’ identities subject to an agreed-upon protective order at a January hearing.
The appeals court affirmed the order to compel this week, ruling that the identities of the executioners are relevant to the inmates’ lethal injection challenge.
“Appellants argue that John Doe defendants’ identities are only marginally relevant and, therefore, should be precluded from discovery. This is not the test for discoverability,” wrote Judge Neal McBrayer. “So long as the John Doe defendants’ identities are admissible, or will reasonably lead to admissible evidence, they are relevant.”
The court pointed out that state law allows for otherwise confidential information to be released under certain circumstances. For example, the Tennessee Public Records Act protects the release of medical records to the public but that exemption does not apply to courts, grand juries or district attorneys, according to the ruling.
Accordingly, the names of individuals who help carry out death sentences are not protected from pretrial discovery, the ruling states.
“The identities of John Doe defendants are relevant to appellees’ claims, and they are appropriately protected from public disclosure by the agreed protective order,” wrote Judge McBrayer.
In August, death row inmates sued Tennessee over its intention to rely on the electric chair as a backup plan to lethal injection in the event one or chemicals were unavailable. They say the electric chair cooks organs and inflicts severe brain damage during electrocution.
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