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Judge dismisses death row inmates' 1st Amendment challenge to Ohio's lethal injection law

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by four death row inmates who challenged an Ohio law that shields the names of companies providing lethal injection drugs.

The inmates argued the new law violates free speech rights, contending in part that the measure restricts information that helps inform the public debate over capital punishment. Their attorneys have sought to stop provisions from taking effect in March.

But U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost ruled Tuesday that the inmates lacked standing, saying their challenge was not tied to "actual or imminent injuries."

Attorneys for the state had requested that the lawsuit be dismissed.

In a filing last month, Ohio's attorneys argued that nothing in the law infringes on prisoners' First Amendment rights or affects their ability to argue issues in court. They said the law denies inmates access to information in the state's hands, which is not the same as suppressing free speech.

Frost sided with the state in his decision. He wrote that the law does not suppress speech or the ability to oppose the death penalty.

"Rather, the statutory scheme simply cuts off Ohio and its employees as a source of specific information for both proponents and opponents of the death penalty," the judge said.

The inmates also allege the restrictions treat them differently than other groups, arguing that state lethal injection expert witnesses could have their identity shielded under the law, while defense witnesses wouldn't get the same protection. The state has disputed the unequal treatment allegation.

Frost noted that the dismissal "unquestionably handicaps" related litigation over Ohio's execution protocol.

"In order to challenge the use of a drug that will be used to execute them, inmates must explain why use of that drug presents a risk of substantial harm," he said. But he acknowledged that inmates aren't allowed to know where the drug came from, how it was manufactured or who was involved in its creation.

"A proponent of Kafkaesque absurdity might be proud of such a byzantine method for pursuing the protection of a constitutional right, even if the drafters of the United States Constitution might not," Frost wrote.

Supporters of the new law say shielding the names of companies that provide lethal injection drugs is necessary to protect drugmakers from harassment and ensure the state gets supplies of the drugs.

Ohio executions have been on hold since a troubling 26-minute execution a year ago during which a prisoner getting a first-ever two-drug combo repeatedly gasped and snorted.

The state has ditched that two-drug method and said it will use one of two different anesthetics in the future, neither of which it has on hand and both of which may be hard to find.

Attorneys for the inmates say there is no evidence whatsoever of companies being harassed.

The lawsuit was filed in December on behalf of Ohio death row prisoners Ronald Phillips, Raymond Tibbetts, Robert Van Hook and Grady Brinkley.

Cleveland attorney Timothy Sweeney, who represents Phillips, said they will appeal the decision.

"This extreme law needs to be fully evaluated by the courts prior to its implementation," Sweeney said in a written statement.

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