Given the timeliness of the topic — the execution of Idaho inmate Richard Leavitt, scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday — here is a draft of our Tuesday editorial on witness access to the execution.
For the First Amendment, and for those who believe in transparent government, it was a significant victory on a sobering front.
Witnesses should have access to view an execution from start to finish, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled late Friday. So at 10 a.m. today — when Richard Leavitt is scheduled to be killed in connection with the gruesome 1984 slaying of Danette Elg of Blackfoot — witnesses and reporters will be allowed to watch as corrections officials strap Leavitt to a gurney, and inset the IV catheter that will be used to kill Leavitt by lethal injection.
However unsavory, this is a key step in an execution — a sentence carried out by the state, on behalf of its people. If a select group of witnesses is unable to watch this stage of the process, all Idahoans are forced to accept, on faith, the government’s assertion that an execution went smoothly, and was handled in a dignified manner. This is why the Statesman joined 16 other news organizations in a lawsuit seeking full witness access.
The fact that the circuit court ruled in favor of access should come as no surprise. As a three-judge panel bluntly stated in Friday’s unanimous ruling, the court made this very determination in a 2002 California case. “The state of Idaho has had ample opportunity for the past decade to adopt an execution procedure that reflects this settled law,” wrote the judges, criticizing state prisons officials for their “intransigence.”
State prisons officials have insisted that they cannot allow access to the first stages of an execution without jeopardizing the anonymity of the execution team. The state suggested that changes in the procedure could delay the Leavitt execution — an argument that held favor with U.S. District Court Judge Edward Lodge, who sided with the state in a June 5 ruling.
With Lodge’s ruling overturned, and the state’s arguments rejected on appeal, corrections officials now say they will comply with the circuit court ruling — a decade after the fact. Officials say the Leavitt execution remains on schedule. Which raises an obvious question: Why, then, didn’t the state follow the circuit court’s ruling in the first place?