JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Missouri Department of Corrections has changed its execution witness-selection procedure policy as part of a settlement following law a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Missouri in 2016 on behalf of BuzzFeed News investigative journalist Chris McDaniel.
McDaniel, who has reported extensively on the death penalty in Missouri, was denied the opportunity to witness any of the 17 executions that the state has carried out since he applied to be a witness. The lawsuit challenged the Missouri Department of Corrections’ policy which effectively allowed reporters to be rejected as witnesses based upon the Missouri Department of Corrections viewpoint of their reporting.
"Executing inmates is the most serious power state governments have," said McDaniel, a journalist for BuzzFeed News. "And the public has a right to know the details of how the government is using that power."
Until this settlement, the approval or rejection of a media witness application was solely at the discretion of the director of the Missouri Department of Corrections. The department will now permit the Associated Press, the Missouri Press Association, and the Missouri Broadcasters’ Association to designate a reporter to witness executions.
“The government cannot give or deny access to a reporter based on government officials’ feelings about an individual’s reporting,” said Tony Rothert, legal director, ACLU of Missouri. “A free press is vital to ensuring that the government remains accountable to the people. Allowing the government to pick and choose which reporters have access to government functions is a vital threat to fair and unbiased reporting.”
The federal district court had denied Missouri’s motion to dismiss McDaniel’s case in 2016. That decision was upheld by the federal court of appeals earlier this year.
The ACLU of Missouri has filed several Sunshine Law request-related lawsuits against the Missouri Department of Corrections for not releasing public information about executions. More often than not, the court has also found the Missouri Department of Corrections in clear violation of the public-records law.