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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - In the wake of botched lethal injections in other states, the ACLU and four newspapers have sued Pennsylvania's prison system to unseal records on the drugs that will be used in an execution later this month, the state's first in 15 years.
The lawsuit seeks to uncover how lethal injection drugs used by the Department of Corrections are tested and supplied, since a shortage of traditional execution drugs has meant a bigger role for so-called compounding pharmacies.
The department has fought the release of that data, saying certain law enforcement information is exempt from the state's public records laws.
“It is set by legislation that those things are considered confidential,” said Susan Bensinger, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
The lawsuit is a motion to become involved in an existing class action suit, Chester v. Wetzel, brought by anti-death penalty advocates in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The class action claims lethal injections violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Information about the suppliers was released under seal to lawyers, denying access to reporters.
The motion, filed on Thursday by the ACLU, Philadelphia's City Paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Guardian U.S., says keeping the information confidential violates the first amendment rights of the newspapers.
The court action is tied to the scheduled Sept. 22 execution of Hubert Michael Jr., convicted of the kidnapping, rape and murder of a teenage girl. His execution would be the first in Pennsylvania since 1999.
Michael was free on bail on another rape charge when he kidnapped and then shot Trista Eng, 16, after offering her a ride as she was walking to her job at a fast food restaurant in March 1995.
Under pressure from European governments, drug manufacturer Hospira has cut off supplies of sodium thiopental, which had been used as a sedative in a three-drug cocktail for U.S. executions.
A shortage of that drug has forced states to turn to pentobarbital. But Danish manufacturer Lunbeck has asked its U.S. distributor not to allow the drug to be used in executions, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Without traditional execution drugs, corrections officials have been forced to reformulate the lethal cocktails. They have turned to compounding pharmacies, which are small laboratories that can remix existing narcotics to fill specific needs.
In April, an Oklahoma prisoner began mumbling after being administered one of the newly configured lethal injections, forcing a doctor to call off the execution. He died of a heart attack some 40 minutes later. In July, an Arizona prisoner gasped and snorted on a gurney for nearly two hours before dying after being administered a new lethal cocktail.
Editing by Barbara Goldberg. Editing by Andre Grenon