PHOENIX – An Arizona prison official in charge of buying drugs to carry out the death penalty testified Tuesday in a media lawsuit over access to execution information that pharmaceutical companies will no longer sell drugs to carry out the punishment.
Carson McWilliams, a division director in charge of prison operations for the Arizona Department of Corrections, testified at a one-day trial in Phoenix over whether the state must reveal its source of lethal-injection drugs and the qualifications of executioners.
Like other states, Arizona is struggling to obtain execution drugs after U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies began blocking the use of products for lethal injections.
McWilliams said it has gotten more difficult to find companies to sell drugs to Arizona, even though a law protects the firms from being publicly identified.
McWilliams said he was once shown an anonymous letter in which a supplier was threatened and told the business would be ruined if it sold drugs to state prisons.
"I don't know anyone in the United States where we could acquire chemicals to do executions," McWilliams said. "No one that I know will do business with the Department of Corrections."
The news organizations, including The Associated Press, filed the federal lawsuit after the 2014 death of condemned Arizona inmate Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was given 15 doses of a two-drug combination before he died in what his attorney called a botched execution.
The lawsuit asserts that the public has a First Amendment right to information that would help determine whether executions are carried out humanely.
The trial ended after three witnesses testified. U.S. District Judge Murray Snow, who will decide the case, didn't say when he would issue his ruling.
Despite McWilliams' testimony, a lawyer for the news organizations said the state didn't prove that drug suppliers were refusing to do business with Arizona. Instead, attorney John Langford said suppliers don't want to be involved with the death penalty.
"The execution of an individual is the most significant exercise of state power, bar none," Langford said. "The public is entitled to the information necessary to understand how that power is being exercised."
The plaintiffs say information about executions has historically been open to the public and noted that journalists witness executions as proxies for the general public. They argued such information helps promote public confidence in the criminal justice system.
The state countered that the confidentiality that protects the identity of an execution team extends to suppliers of the drugs.
Jeffrey Sparks, an attorney representing prison officials, said the public is already given information about executions, including the types of drugs that will be used and the qualifications for execution team members putting IV lines in condemned inmates.
The lawsuit was filed by the AP, Arizona Republic, Guardian News & Media, Arizona Daily Star, CBS 5 (KPHO-TV) and 12 News (KPNX-TV).
The news organizations won a partial victory last year when a judge ruled the state must let witnesses view the entirety of an execution, including each time drugs are administered.
Arizona currently has 118 prisoners on death row.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/jacques%20billeaud.