Media Scene

Washburn: Adding secrets a grave matter in Raleigh

The death chamber at Raleigh’s Central Prison, where inmates are taken for lethal injection and where official witnesses gather behind the window. A new law will make a secret of what drugs are used in the process.
The death chamber at Raleigh’s Central Prison, where inmates are taken for lethal injection and where official witnesses gather behind the window. A new law will make a secret of what drugs are used in the process. cseward@newsobserver.com

About two dozen bills are floating around the General Assembly in Raleigh that would reduce access by the press and public to state records.

Last week, Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law one of the most troublesome: a bill that makes it a secret where the lethal drugs come from for executions.

By pushing back the public’s right to know, the state gains an efficiency in the execution process. It can obtain lethal paralytics and barbiturates for the death chamber at Central Prison in Raleigh without disclosing the source.

American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, the N.C. Press Association and the Carolina Justice Policy Center, among other groups, opposed the law. Objections included making the mechanics of the death penalty more secretive and increasing the chance of a botched chemical execution.

Lethal injection – once seen as a more humane method than electrocution, the gas chamber or hanging – is under attack in many death penalty states after a series of executions in recent years where problems occurred.

States are also having trouble obtaining the death drugs as manufacturers come under attack by death penalty opponents.

Neither North Carolina nor South Carolina are viewed as particularly record-friendly states. Both have broad restrictions on what the press and public can see. Florida, with its expansive Sunshine Law, is widely considered in media circles as the most open state; New York is probably the most restrictive.

Not all the public-records bills this session impose restrictions. In the N.C. Senate, approval has been given to a bill that would impose a 100-year limit on exemptions to the public records law. That will open to historians and genealogists records such as competency hearings from the 19th and early 20th centuries, once sealed perpetually.

Another aspect of the bill makes it clear that pictures, videos and descriptions of shipwrecks are public and owned by the Department of Cultural Resources, regardless of any contracts with salvors.

Other bills affecting the public’s right to know:

▪ Awaiting the governor’s signature is a measure that will make contracts spelling out fees between the state port and a cargo carrier exempt from public records law.

▪ Languishing in the House Judiciary Committee is a bill that would allow state lottery winners to remain anonymous.

▪ Apparently dead for this session is a bill that would make drilling companies disclose publicly what chemicals are used in fracking.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com, @WashburnChObs

  Comments