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By Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times

Oklahoma prison officials violated the First Amendment when they closed the blinds to witnesses during a botched execution in April, media and civil liberties advocates allege in a federal lawsuit filed Monday.

The American Civil Liberties Union and its Oklahoma affiliate teamed up with the Guardian U.S. and the Oklahoma Observer to file the lawsuit, which springs from the April 29 execution of Clayton Lockett.

Lockett’s death reinvigorated the national debate over the death penalty after he writhed and groaned and died of a heart attack 43 minutes after receiving a lethal injection. After Lockett began to groan, execution officials lowered the blinds to reporters, blocking their view.

Lockett had been convicted of kidnapping and murdering Stephanie Neiman in 1999.

“At an execution, the press serves as the public’s eyes and ears,” Katie Fretland, a freelance journalist representing the Guardian and the Observer at the execution, said in a statement; she is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “The government shouldn’t be allowed to effectively blindfold us when things go wrong. The public has a right to the whole story, not a version edited by government officials.”

The lawsuit names Robert Patton, the director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, and Anita Trammell, warden of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, as defendants.

“We’re not going to comment on the pending lawsuit or anything else about it (the execution) until after the investigation comes out and is completed,” Jerry Massie, spokesman for the department of corrections, told the Los Angeles Times, referring to the internal investigation ordered by Gov. Mary Fallin after the execution.

Currently Oklahoma keeps the blinds closed while intravenous lines are inserted into the prisoner. The lawsuit seeks to have the blinds open at the onset of this procedure and remain open until the body is removed. The suit also asks that state officials videotape all executions.

“The death penalty represents the most powerful exercise of government authority,” ACLU attorney Lee Rowland said in a statement. “The need for public oversight is as critical at the execution stage as it is during trial.”

David Schulz, an attorney and co-director of the Yale University media clinic, told the Times that when prison officials closed the blinds during Lockett’s execution it was “a violation of the public’s constitutional rights.”

“In this country, the public has always had a right to view executions, historically,” Schulz said, adding that in more recent times, the media have served as the public’s surrogate in witnessing executions.

Schulz said it was within a judge’s power to order Oklahoma to videotape executions as “a safeguard of the public’s rights, if there’s an effort in the future to deny access as there was here.”

Monday’s lawsuit was not the first time that the Guardian — a British publication that has recently expanded its coverage of the United States with Guardian U.S. — has sued American public officials over First Amendment rights.

In May, the Guardian, The Associated Press, and Missouri’s three-largest newspapers sued state officials over the state’s execution secrecy laws, which have helped conceal the source of the state’s lethal injection drugs and the identities of execution personnel. Schulz helped design the Missouri lawsuit.

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

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