Four news organizations, including The Inquirer, filed a motion in federal court Thursday seeking the name of the firm contracted to provide the drugs Pennsylvania would use in an execution by lethal injection scheduled for this month.
The state has said the compounding pharmacy it contracted to supply the drugs would likely refuse to do so if its name were made public, according to the court papers filed in Harrisburg.
In the motion filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, The Inquirer, Guardian US, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Philadelphia City Paper said recent botched executions in other states "have greatly increased the public's interest in lethal injection executions."
U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane ordered the company's name sealed at the state's request. The issue emerged in conjunction with an attempt to win a stay of execution for Hubert Lester Michael Jr.
Kane and a three-judge federal appeals court panel have both denied petitions to stay his execution. Gov. Corbett in July signed a warrant - the fourth to date for Michael - setting Sept. 22 for his lethal injection for the 1993 kidnapping and murder of Trista Eng, 16, in York County.
A temporary stay is in place while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit weighs a request from Michael's attorneys to make their case before the full court.
Lawyers representing death-row inmates have challenged the constitutionality of the state's death penalty and are seeking to prove that Pennsylvania's lethal-injection protocol would cause death-row inmates pain and suffering.
The protocol calls for the use of three drugs - pentobarbital, known by the brand name Nembutal; pancuronium bromide; and potassium chloride, according to court papers.
The maker of Nembutal has banned sale of the anesthetic for use in executions in the United States, and as a result, the state Department of Corrections has contracted with a compounding pharmacy to manufacture pentobarbital for an execution when needed.
In their motion to unseal the court documents, the news organizations said: "One point of public interest surrounding [the recent] executions is the type and source of the drugs used in their lethal injections procedures."
The lawyers representing death-row inmates know the name of the compound pharmacy and have raised questions about the firm's competency. But they cannot publicly identify the company because of the court order.
The news organizations argue that "the public interest in a full examination of the DOC's planned execution procedures outweighs the DOC's stated interest in maintaining the secrecy of its supplier."
The motion says public scrutiny of the procedure could uncover problems with the supply chain or could show that the way the state carries out the death penalty is sound.
"Either fact would be of intense interest to the public in this time of heightened awareness and scrutiny of the lethal injection process," the news organizations said.
Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution since 1999, when Gary Heidnik was killed by lethal injection for the murders of two of the six women he abducted, raped, and tortured in Philadelphia between November 1986 and March 1987.