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Media Has No Right to Watch Executions

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) - A federal judge dismissed a media lawsuit against Oklahoma officials over the censored execution of Clayton Lockett, unpersuaded by the media's First Amendment claims.

The Oklahoma Observer and others sued Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton and Oklahoma State Penitentiary Warden Anita Trammell in August 2014 in Federal Court. They claimed that witnesses to Lockett's botched execution were deprived of the right to observe when a window shade in the death chamber was lowered .

Lockett, 38, was convicted in 2000 of raping and murdering 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman. He was convicted of shooting her with a sawed-off shotgun and watching two accomplices bury her alive.

Lockett's execution, described as a gruesome, bloody mess by execution team members during the state's subsequent investigation, resulted in changes to the state's execution protocols.

The changes include visual confirmation of intravenous line placement and a substantial increase in the dosage of execution drugs .

U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton dismissed the media's lawsuit on Jan. 9, citing his December opinion granting the defendants' motion to dismiss.

"Plaintiff's federal claims are dismissed with prejudice," the dismissal order stated . "Plaintiffs' claims under the Oklahoma Constitution are dismissed without prejudice."

The plaintiffs claimed their qualified right to see the entirety of executions is not outweighed by a state interest. Heaton disagreed. He said the U.S. Supreme Court has treated such a right in the criminal adjudication process differently than in the "implementing" of a court's judgment.

"That conclusion is consistent with the court's different treatment of access issues in the prison context, where the implementation of criminal sentences normally occurs," the 25-page opinion states. "Unlike the tradition of openness which exists as to criminal trials, the court has emphasized the closed nature of prisons. Recognizing that difference, the court has upheld limits on access to penal institutions even where serious issues as to inmate welfare have existed. This suggests the court would not take principles directed to the process of determining guilt and superimpose them in a different context - the implementation of the sentence."

Prisons officials argued that the press has only "state-granted, qualified permission" to be at executions. They claimed the plaintiffs had no constitutional right of access to executions beyond what is extended to the general public, which has no such rights of access to prisons or executions.

Heaton found the plaintiffs "make a compelling argument" for more open access in the state. "But in the circumstances of this case, the question of the appropriate policy is just that - a policy judgment," the opinion states. "It is therefore a matter for Oklahoma's decision-makers, rather than one for resolution by this court."

Oklahoma officials could not be reached for comment Sunday evening.

They resumed carrying out lethal injections this month, beginning with Charles Warner, 47, on Jan. 15. Warner was convicted in 1999 of the rape and murder of Adrianna Waller, the 11-month-old daughter of his girlfriend.

Warner's execution was delayed for an hour as prison officials awaited word from the Supreme Court on his application for a stay. In a 5-4 ruling , the court declined to rule on whether the sedative midazolam would make him unconscious during the execution.

Warner unsuccessfully argued that the state's replacement three-drug execution cocktail would subject him to unconstitutional pain and suffering. Several states have resorted to replacement execution drugs due to shortages of traditional drugs caused by anti-death penalty activists successfully asking large drug manufacturers to stop making them.

The high court reversed course two weeks later, granting a review of midazolam that halts further executions in the state until a hearing in April .

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