Newspapers, state reach settlement agreement in case challenging Pa. inmate execution procedure

By Jon Campisi | Nov 4, 2013

Two area daily newspapers have settled a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania

Department of Corrections and other state officials over the public viewing procedure surrounding Pennsylvania executions.

Lawyers representing the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Harrisburg Patriot-News announced last week that a settlement has been reached in a case initiated last fall by the media outlets, one that challenged a commonwealth policy that bars journalists and members of the public from fully viewing prison inmate executions.

The September 2012 lawsuit, which was previously reported on by the Pennsylvania Record, argued that reporters and other witnesses should be able to watch the death penalty process be carried out from start to finish.

The newspapers desire to ensure that lethal injections are “fairly and humanely” administered, they had stated in their complaint.

The plaintiffs, who were represented by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia law firm of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, contended that during prior executions, all of the pre-work, such as bringing the condemned person into the execution chamber, strapping them to the gurney, and inserting the intravenous lines that administer the lethal drug cocktail, were done behind the cover of a curtain.

Only after these actions were completed was the curtain covering the window between the execution chamber and the public observation room opened, the lawsuit maintained.

The suit also said that the curtain has historically then been closed after “flat-lining” occurs, with the witnesses unable to view the coroner pronounced the condemned prisoner deceased.

The newspapers had argued that the Department of Corrections protocols are unconstitutional because they violate the public’s First Amendment right to hear a condemned person’s final statement.

Stephen J. Shapiro, a lawyer with Schnader Harrison, wrote a letter to U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane in Harrisburg on Nov. 1 informing the jurist that the parties have agreed to settle the matter.

The plaintiffs, Shapiro wrote, agreed to dismiss the claims with prejudice pursuant to the settlement agreement.

A copy of the actual agreement was not included on the federal court docket, but the Inquirer reported on Saturday that the agreement would allow witnesses to future Pennsylvania executions to see and hear the entire procedure from start to finish.

The newspaper quoted its acting editor, Stan Wischnowski, as saying that the settlement agreement is a “victory for First Amendment rights and the public’s right to know.

“By retaining access to the entire execution process, this ensures a more informed discussion of the death penalty now and in the future, and also promotes a strong sense of fairness and transparency,” he stated.

The newspaper reported that as per the agreement between the parties, the curtain between the death chamber and the witness observation room would remain open during the duration of an execution.

The Corrections Department would also set up a public address system so that members of the public in attendance can hear the activity that takes place within the chamber and also be witness to any statements made by the condemned.

The corrections secretary, however, would still have the ability to close the curtain for security reasons or turn off the public address system if an inmate says anything “malicious or threatening” toward the witnesses in attendance, the Inquirer reported.

Pennsylvania’s death chamber is located at SCI Rockview, the state prison in Centre County.

While the death penalty is still technically on the books in Pennsylvania, no condemned prisoner has been put to death in the commonwealth since the late 1990s, when convicted torture-murderer Gary Heidnik received a lethal injection for killing street prostitutes who he had kidnapped, tortured and killed in his North Philadelphia rowhome.

There are currently 191 inmates sitting on Pennsylvania’s death row, according to the Inquirer.

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