The ACLU of Virginia has asked Gov. Terry McAuliffe to halt all executions in the Commonwealth after learning the state Department of Corrections secretly changed its procedures to hide more of the execution process from the public.

Less than three weeks after problems with the Jan. 18 lethal injection of Ricky Jovan Gray, the DOC changed its “execution manual” on Feb. 7 so that official, media and victim witnesses will be unable to observe the inmate’s condition prior to future executions or view the insertion of IVs – a critical part of the procedure.

“Virginia already has a system that allows the state to contract in secret with secret compounding pharmacies to make secret drugs, and now the DOC has moved to remove the actual process of executions further and further from public view,” the ACLU-VA’s March 16 letter to the governor, signed by Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, states. “These additional restrictions on the public’s right to know are shocking, shameful and in direct contradiction with the principles of open government and accountability upon which our democracy is founded.”

The ACLU-VA supports a 2015 resolution by the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project which calls for complete transparency in all aspects of capital punishment, including public development and disclosure of execution protocols, public disclosure of all drugs used, ability of witnesses to observe the entire execution process, and independent investigations when executions are unusually prolonged or the inmate appears to suffer.

In Gray’s Jan. 18 execution by lethal injection, witnesses were able to observe him being brought into the execution chamber but he was shielded behind a curtain for 33 minutes as officials attempted to set IVs. The ACLU-VA has said the length of time Gray was behind the curtain, as well as the presence of a doctor who confirmed his death using a stethoscope rather than by viewing a heart monitor as the previous protocols required, suggest something unusual happened during the process of killing him.

Under the DOC’s new protocols, witnesses would not be able to see the inmate at all prior to administration of drugs, and the attending physician would have discretion to confirm death using a stethoscope.

“It seems that, when confronted with questions and criticism over issues with the written protocols and actual practice of executing people in Virginia, the DOC and the administration’s posture is to ignore these concerns and then tighten the veil of secrecy even further to avoid uncomfortable questions in the future,” the ACLU-VA’s letter to the governor states.

In its letter, the ACLU-VA urges the governor to:

  • Order an independent investigation into the execution of Ricky Gray,
  • Initiate a public process of updating the DOC’s execution manual to conform with the ABA transparency resolution,
  • Halt all pending executions until the DOC protocols are properly revised, and
  • Commute the pending April 25 execution of Ivan Teleguz based on his clemency appeal.

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