Two Pennsylvania newspapers sue to witness more of Terrance Williams' planned execution

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HARRISBURG - Two Pennsylvania newspapers asked a federal court Wednesday to literally pull back the curtain on the state's execution chamber and allow witnesses to see the whole procedure.

According to the suit, filed by The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, the state's Department of Corrections is violating the constitution by preventing witnesses to the state's first execution in 13 years -- scheduled for next week -- from observing the entire process.

The execution protocols issued in 2010 allow witnesses, which include six media representatives, to see only the brief period during which the lethal injection is administered and that a curtain would be drawn to bar them from seeing what goes on up until that point or immediately after, according to the suit.

"The execution protocols deprive the public of the information necessary to engage in an informed debate about the most severe penalty the government can impose on its citizens," according to the suit.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District one week before Terrance Williams is scheduled to be executed at SCI Rockview in Centre County for the 1984 murder of Amos Norwood in Philadelphia.

A Philadelphia judge said Tuesday that she will decide on Friday whether the execution can proceed. Another appeal is being heard Thursday by the state pardons board.

Witnesses would not see the demeanors of the prisoner or anyone else in the room, including the executioner, nor does it allow them to see if force is used when the prisoner is strapped to the gurney or if the prisoner displays any signs of pain throughout, according to the suit.

Nor does the protocol provide the condemned the opportunity to make a final statement while visible to the witnesses.

The suit is seeking an injunction to compel the state to make the whole process visible from the point the condemned man enters the chamber until he is declared dead.

The protocols are similar to those used in California prisons until 2002, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that they violated the First Amendment rights of the public to witness executions "from the moment the condemned enters the execution chamber through, to and including, the time the condemned is declared dead."

The court reached the same conclusion in an Idaho case this summer.

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