Missouri Prisons Ban St. Louis Magazine Over Story About Death Penalty

click to enlarge You won't find a copy of May's St. Louis Magazine in here. - FLICKR
You won't find a copy of May's St. Louis Magazine in here.

The Missouri Department of Correction banned the May edition of St. Louis Magazine over fears that a story about the death penalty would cause "violence or hatred" among prisoners.

The story "How We Kill: The State of the Death Penalty," written by senior editor Bill Powell, illustrate's Missouri's ultimate punishment by offering a moment-by-moment look at convicted murderer Herbert Smulls' final day.

Smulls was executed January 28 according to Missouri's highly secretive and controversial new policy. The rules are so restrictive that even the FDA can't regulate the execution drug used to kill death row inmates like Smulls.

See also: Missouri Executes Herbert Smulls After U.S. Supreme Court Delays 22 Hours

Earlier this month, the prison system sent St. Louis Magazine a letter saying the issue with Powell's story will be banned from correctional facilities statewide.

Herbert Smulls.
Herbert Smulls.

"This issue has been censored due to the content which contains information which can be used to instill violence or hatred among the offender population," says the letter signed by Terry Russell, warden at the center where Missouri executes prisoners.

For Powell, the correction department's response points to the same problem he highlighted in his story: There are too many secrets in Missouri's execution process.

"It's a bit rich that the department responded to a story alleging a pattern of secrecy by suppressing that story, too," Powell tells Poynter.

Almost everything about executions in Missouri is a closely-guarded secret: where the drug comes from, how pure it is, who prepares it, who administers it. Powell goes into detail in his cover story:

State law requires that every execution be witnessed by no fewer than eight "reputable citizens." It's a single vestige of transparency in an increasingly secret process. When its executioner was deemed incompetent, the state of Missouri hired somebody else, then passed a law prohibiting the press from publicly identifying him or her. When the manufacturer of its lethal injection drugs said they weren't intended to kill, the state got another drug from another source, then granted the pharmacy anonymity, too.

The pattern is consistent: When a problem arises, fix it, then shroud the process, to prevent future complaints. It's proved an effective approach. Hampered by various issues, Missouri carried out two executions from 2006 to 2012. Now, though questions persist, Smulls will be the third to die in as many months.

See also: 5 Reasons Missouri Should Use the Guillotine, Not Lethal Injection

St. Louis Magazine is appealing the censorship, arguing that if there's anyone in the world who needs to know how Missouri executes prisoners, it's Missouri's death row prisoners.

St. Louis Magazine has a great deal of respect for the work done by corrections personnel, and we understand the paramount importance of maintaining safety within the offender population. However, we do not agree that the May 2014 issue would 'instill violence or hatred.' Further, the article regarding Missouri's death penalty contains information pertinent to offenders, especially those on death row. We believe they should have the right to read it.

Local and national news outlets are suing the corrections department over its restrictive secrecy about executions. The way the rules are written, a journalist who publishes identifying information about Missouri's execution team -- including the pharmacy that provides the execution drug -- would be punished.

"I really hope that these lawsuits are successful," Powell tells Daily RFT. "I think that law is patently unconstitutional. It's just a total affront to the first amendment and offensive to journalists."

Follow Lindsay Toler on Twitter at @StLouisLindsay. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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