The state of Alabama is always eager to publicize when it carries out an execution, but when it comes to the mechanics of how it carries out capital punishment, the state prefers secrecy.
The Alabama Department of Corrections refuses to describe its new nitrogen execution system, citing security concerns. The refusal comes in response to a query from The Associated Press, which was following up on the state last week telling a federal judge that it had “completed the initial physical build on the nitrogen hypoxia system” and was “considering additional health and safety measures” after an expert examined the system.
In addition to citing obscure security concerns, the state Department of Corrections contends it is too early to describe its new execution method — although apparently not too early to tell a federal judge it has finished construction.
This secrecy is troubling but not unexpected. The state of Alabama has a history of trying to keep secret how it goes about administering capital punishment.
In 2019, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta sided with the news media and against the state, ruling that the state could not keep secret its lethal injection protocol.
“Alabama is the most secretive state in the country with respect to its protocol,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said at the time.
That specifically involved the the botched execution of Doyle Hamm on Feb. 22, 2018, whose execution by lethal injection was called off after several failed attempts over nearly three hours to insert a needle into his veins. (Hamm and the state have since reached a confidential settlement that precludes a second execution attempt.)
As capital punishment has come under greater scrutiny, the companies that manufacture the drugs needed to carry out lethal injections have become less willing to sell them to states for use in executions. As a result, states have looked back to older methods of capital punishment, from the electric chair to the firing squad.
In 2018 Alabama became the third state to authorize the use of nitrogen gas to execute prisoners, joining Oklahoma and Mississippi. As yet, however, this method remains unused and untested.
Because of that, death penalty critics have likened using nitrogen gas as a method of capital punishment to human experimentation.
The state’s attempts at secrecy do nothing to allay those concerns.
The people of Alabama have a right to know exactly what is going on when the state of Alabama takes human life in our names. If capital punishment is so necessary, if it is just and if it is a deterrent to future crimes, then state officials should want as much light on it as possible.
The state’s consistent efforts to carry out the death penalty with as much secrecy as it can get away with, however, casts a deep shadow over the entire enterprise.