By Jeff Amy
JACKSON – Lawyers for a woman facing the death penalty in Mississippi say the state isn’t telling them enough about where it’s getting execution drugs and how it plans to use them.
Michelle Byrom and her lawyers sued the Mississippi Department of Corrections on Monday, saying it failed to follow public records laws. They asked Hinds County Chancery Judge William Singletary to find that the department has violated the state public records law by not releasing the expiration date of lethal injection drugs that the state currently has and by saying it was too hard to search for other documents.
“MDOC’s evasive and obstructionist response clearly runs afoul of the public records act, and hides from public view important details of the state’s infliction of the most serious and irrevocable penalty against one of its citizens,” the lawsuit states.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Tara Booth declined comment, saying the agency will respond in court.
Byrom was sentenced to death in 2000 in Tishomingo County in the killing of her husband, Edward “Eddie” Byrom Sr. Attorney General Jim Hood has asked the state Supreme Court to set a March 27 execution date for Byrom.
The state also wants to set an execution date for Charles Ray, who was sentenced to death in 1994 in Tippah County for the murder and rape of college student Kristy Ray.
Nationwide, states are scrambling to find execution drugs after European makers cut off use for that purpose. Because of that, states are concealing where they’re finding the drugs, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
“The trend lately has been states withholding as much information as they can about the source of their drugs,” Dieter said.
An Oklahoma compounding pharmacy announced it would stop selling drugs to Missouri for executions after it was revealed to be the source.
“A company that makes drugs for healthful reasons is exposed as making killing drugs,” he said.
The invoices provided to Byrom’s lawyers show Mississippi bought vecuronium, which paralyzes a person, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart, in 2012 and 2013. But the names of the suppliers on the purchase orders were redacted for what the state called “security purposes.” Byrom’s lawyers said there is not an exemption under state law.
Missing from the disclosure is any purchase of a barbiturate which would cause a person to lose consciousness.
Vanessa Carroll, who now represents Byrom for the New Orleans office of the MacArthur Justice Center, was an attorney with the agency that handles appeals for Mississippi’s death row inmates. She submitted the same public records request in October when she worked there and received a May 2012 invoice for the barbiturate sodium pentobarbital and a copy of the protocol for administering the drugs. Neither was released to her this time.
It’s unclear whether the Department of Corrections has any sodium pentobarbital on hand, and whether its expiration date has passed. Experts say such drugs are likely to be expired by now.
“We don’t know what the expiration date is for that,” Carroll said. “I don’t know if they still have any.”
She said the department could have provided expiration dates for the drugs it does have, calling the refusal “an evasive response.”
It’s also unclear if the department has changed its rules for administering the drugs.
Dieter, though, said he’s not sure if the jousting will delay any executions in Mississippi.
“States are carrying out executions,” he said. “It’s not like they’re not finding drugs.”