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Today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit along with The Guardian and The Oklahoma Observer against Oklahoma prison officials. The lawsuit seeks to take the literal curtain down between execution witnesses and prison administrators. 

In the execution of Clayton Lockett this past spring, the process went awry, and officials closed the blinds on witnesses, including journalists. They were unable to see the details of the botched execution. 

ACLU Staff Attorney Lee Rowland offered this statement, 

The state of Oklahoma violated the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of the press to witness executions so the public can be informed about the government’s actions and hold it accountable. The death penalty represents the most powerful exercise of government authority. The need for public oversight is as critical at the execution stage as it is during trial."

The lawsuit will ask that all witnesses be allowed to view an execution in full from when the prisoner enters the execution room to when the body is removed. During Lockett's execution, and other Oklahoma executions, the blinds are drawn while the prisoner is strapped in and when the intravenous lines are inserted. Then, when the drugs are injected, the blinds are opened. In the event of 20 minutes or so of suffering, which is considered a long execution, the blinds were drawn. 

In Lockett's execution, reporters heard sounds of pain after those 20 minutes, however, they could not see what was occurring, and therefore could not properly assert suspicions of pain. 

Dr. Steven Baumrucker, Associate Editor in Chief of the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, told The Wire in a prior interview that it is extremely difficult to determine whether the prisoner is in pain during an execution, regardless of the sounds made or expressions. In discussing the botched Arizona execution of Joseph Woods, Baumrucker said, "If this person was tolerant of opioids, that may not be enough to kill him quickly. This maybe why this took two hours. That is a questionable cocktail. Now, did he suffer during that? The things they saw as suffering maybe bothered the people that were watching more than it was bothering him. But can we say that he didn't suffer? No." 

Katie Fretland will service as the plaintiff in the lawsuit, she is a reporter for both the Observer and Guardian. “At an execution, the press serves as the public’s eyes and ears,” said Fretland, “The government shouldn't be allowed to effectively blindfold us when things go wrong. The public has a right to the whole story, not a version edited by government officials.”

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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