By Kate Giammarise / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania hasn't put anyone to death since 1999, but should the state proceed with the execution of Richard Poplawski, the Stanton Heights man sentenced to death in 2011 for the murder of three Pittsburgh police officers, he wants to know what drugs will be used.
Poplawski, an inmate at the State Correctional Institution Graterford, Montgomery County, filed a request under the state's Right to Know Law on Jan. 21, asking the Department of Corrections for "procedures and protocols for conducting executions, including types of drugs [and] chemicals, current inventory, expiration dates, and suppliers [and] providers."
His request came five days after the botched Jan. 16 execution of Ohio death row inmate Dennis McGuire, who reportedly gasped and convulsed -- and took more than 24 minutes to die -- after being given a new and untested combination of lethal injection chemicals.
That execution revived debate over the death penalty and the manner in which it is carried out. The issues of what drugs states are using as part of their executions and where they are obtaining them are again in the news following the April execution of Oklahoma killer Clayton Lockett, who took more than 40 minutes to die after being given an untested three-drug cocktail.
The department denied Poplawski's initial January request a few days after he made it, arguing that information is exempt from the Right to Know Law under security and investigative exemptions.
Poplawski appealed the denial to the state's Office of Open Records, which ruled partly in favor of Poplawski and partly in favor of the Department of Corrections, saying the department met the legal burden to prove it does not have to disclose certain security procedures -- but that it should disclose other facts.
"The Department has failed to demonstrate how the disclosure of information regarding the procurement, inventory, storage and use of drugs used in the execution process would threaten public safety," the March ruling said.
"Information unrelated to security, such as the types of drugs used, the method in which the Department procures these drugs, the expiration dates, and other information regarding the use of drugs in the execution process cannot be said to constitute a threat to the public. Accordingly, the Department is required [to disclose] information regarding drugs used in the execution process."
The department had noted that the procurement process "to obtain drugs to perform an execution has become increasingly difficult with suppliers reluctant to supply these drugs for fear ... that their businesses and personnel will be the subject of reprisals," according to the Office of Open Records ruling.
In recent years, states have had a more difficult time obtaining drugs for use in executions as some drug manufacturers have declined to sell them for that use, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Some states have resorted to obtaining the drugs from compounding pharmacies, he said.
In Pennsylvania, it's somewhat of a theoretical discussion -- the last state execution in Pennsylvania was on July 6, 1999, when Gary Heidnik was put to death by lethal injection.
In general, Pennsylvania's drug protocol is set by legislation, and the drugs used are public information, though the origin of the drugs is not public, said Susan Bensinger, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.
"The legislation expresses 'injecting the convict with a continuous intravenous administration of a lethal quantity of an ultrashort-acting barbiturate in combination with chemical paralytic agents approved by the department until death is pronounced by the coroner,' " Ms. Bensinger stated in an email.
The sedative used is sodium pentobarbital and the paralytic agents are pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride.
The state also doesn't discuss who's involved in carrying out executions.
"The Department of Corrections engages the services of individuals technically competent by virtue of training or experience to carry out the lethal injection procedure," according to a statement on the department's website.
"The state does not identify injection team members because of the confidentiality of the execution policy, for security reasons and out of respect of the privacy of those involved."
Mr. Dieter said historically, states have always been allowed to keep the names of personnel involved in executions secret. As the issue of where execution drugs are obtained has become more controversial, state court rulings have been mixed on what information must be disclosed, he said. In some cases, what type of drugs are used and where they are obtained may only be disclosed to defendants and their attorneys, and not necessarily the public, he said.
In 1990, Gov. Robert P. Casey signed legislation changing the state's method of execution from electrocution to lethal injection.
There are 191 people on death row in Pennsylvania, nine of them from Allegheny County, according to department statistics. Poplawski was sentenced to death in 2011 for the 2009 slaying of three Pittsburgh police officers who were responding to a call at his home.
Last year, four Democratic state senators introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty, citing its high costs and the punishment's irrevocable nature; the bill has not had a hearing or a committee vote.
Since the Legislature reinstated capital punishment in 1978, only three people have been executed in Pennsylvania, and all three waived their rights to further appeals.