Behind Closed Doors

Once open to the world, Missouri's death row is now secret

The protocol is written in such a way that generic information about the mechanics of lethal injection is intertwined with sensitive facts that could be used by inmates to figure out the names of prison employees who carry out executions, Lombardi says. There are risks beyond inmates' being able to identify employees who play roles in executions, Lombardi says, but he won't elaborate, again citing security concerns. Revealing the nature of any threat would in itself constitute a threat to institutional security, he says.

Lombardi says someone other than a condemned inmate has been harmed as a result of a lethal injection, but he won't provide any details. "To give you that information would be revealing security issues, and I'm not about to do that," he says. He says that prison officials have twice encountered physical resistance during executions, but he won't say more than that, including exactly what kind of resistance was met. Again he says such information would jeopardize security.

Lombardi, who has held his post since 1986, does say that no one has been harmed as a result of execution procedures' becoming public.

Missouri is one of the most secretive states in the nation when it comes to executions, says Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor who has studied execution procedures in the 36 states that use lethal injection. In her 226-page study published earlier this year in the Ohio State Law Journal, Denno writes that a Missouri corrections official told her that the state has no written protocol detailing lethal-injection procedures. That's typical for states where the death penalty has become routine (Missouri, which has executed 59 inmates, ranks third in the number of executions since a nationwide moratorium ended in 1977). "The irony is that states that execute the most provide the least amount of information," Denno says.

Rafert says she thinks Missouri corrections officials may have learned a lesson from Trombley, who brought a camera onto death row and produced a documentary the year after his book was published. The film was shown around the world, including on the Discovery Channel. Reviewers praised its intimate look at how the death penalty is applied in Missouri. "The Execution Protocol ... is so coolly and carefully constructed that it can apparently be interpreted as an audio-visual aid if you happen to be in the business of legalized killing," wrote [the late] Vincent Canby of the New York Times.

The film sparked worldwide interest in the plight of A.J. Bannister, who was featured in the movie and executed four years later, despite protests from as far away as Australia. Prison officials didn't look as sympathetic. "Not surprisingly, the warden, the 'death protocol committee' and, especially, the prison doctor come off like inhuman automatons and, occasionally, buffoons," wrote Jeff Menell in the Hollywood Reporter.

Rafert says she believes corrections officials are worried about another backlash if they release the protocol, which has been updated seven times since Trombley visited death row.

"They were rather open at that time in releasing this type of information," Rafert says. "I think they may be concerned if they release this information, that it could somehow bring about the downfall of the death penalty in Missouri."

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