COLUMBUS — Four death row inmates are suing Ohio officials over a new state law that shields the names of companies that provide the state with lethal injection drugs.
Attorneys for the inmates claim in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the law violates their free speech rights by concealing the identities of those to whom they would like to direct their messages about the death penalty. They also contend it restricts information that helps inform the public debate over capital punishment.
The new restrictions cleared the Legislature last week, and Gov. John Kasich signed the law Friday. They take effect in March.
Supporters of the policy say shielding the names of companies that provide lethal injection drugs is necessary to obtain supplies by protecting the drugmakers from harassment. They argue the measure is needed to restart executions in Ohio, which were put on hold because of questions raised by the January execution of Dennis McGuire, who gasped and snorted for 26 minutes before he was declared dead.
The law also keeps confidential the names of participants in Ohio executions. The anonymity for companies — which would last 20 years — is aimed at compounding pharmacies that mix doses of specialty drugs.
Inmates Ronald Phillips, Raymond Tibbetts, Robert Van Hook and Grady Brinkley claim in their lawsuit the policy will silence one side of the debate over executions.
“Everyone should be deeply troubled by this bold piece of legislation which has been passed to artificially reduce public criticism of government actions in one of the most important areas in which it acts: the taking of a human life,” said Cleveland attorney Timothy Sweeney, who represents Phillips.
Phillips, 41, is condemned to die for raping and killing the 3-year-old daughter of his girlfriend in Akron in 1993. His execution is scheduled for Feb. 11.
A prosecutor has said he expected lawsuits over the policy, making it impossible to carry out Phillips’ execution as planned.
The inmates filed their lawsuit in federal court in Columbus against Ohio's governor, attorney general and prisons director. It doesn't challenge the inmates’ convictions, death sentences or Ohio's lethal injection process.
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the office doesn't comment on litigation. Attorney General Mike DeWine's office said Wednesday it was reviewing the lawsuit.
Tibbetts is scheduled to die March 12 for the 1997 fatal stabbing of Fred Hicks in Cincinnati. Van Hook's execution is planned for Nov. 17, 2015, and Brinkley does not currently have an execution date.
The lawsuit comes as a federal judge ruled that challenges of changes to Ohio's execution policy and the state's defense of those changes must be filed faster than normal ahead of the February execution.
Defense attorneys had asked Judge Gregory Frost for the quick turnaround out of concern the adoption of new execution rules wouldn't leave them enough time to file challenges.
The state prisons agency must submit updated rules no later than one month before an execution. In that case, normal deadlines for filing objections and asking for evidence — usually 30 days — wouldn't leave enough time before the execution is carried out, defense attorneys said in a filing last week. Frost agreed and on Tuesday ordered the fast filing.