Three media organizations in Missouri now will have a designated media witness for executions following the settlement of a two-year lawsuit brought by a BuzzFeed News reporter against the Missouri Department of Corrections.
Chris McDaniel, who reports on death penalty-related issues for the online news organization, brought the suit against the department’s former director, George Lombardi, in 2016. McDaniel previously was a reporter for St. Louis Public Radio. He has written several articles that are critical of the department’s execution practices, including one that examined the pharmacy that supplied the state’s execution drugs.
In his suit, McDaniel alleged Lombardi violated his due-process rights by denying his 2014 application to witness a Missouri execution. He alleged the department never responded to the request and did not invite him to witness any of the 17 executions that followed his request.
McDaniel dismissed the suit Tuesday after the settlement was reached between the parties and the DOC implemented the new policy, according to his lawyer, Tony Rothert, legal director for the ACLU of Missouri.
As part of the settlement, the Department of Corrections now will allow The Associated Press, the Missouri Press Association and the Missouri Broadcasters’ Association to each designate a reporter to witness executions.
Previously, requests from the media to witness executions were approved or denied at the sole discretion of the DOC director.
Rothert said he was pleased with the result for his client.
“We were seeking a way for members of the media to have a fair chance at the opportunity to be an execution witness without government officials deciding, based on the viewpoints of the reporter, who should be a witness,” he said.
Rothert said he believed two factors in his client’s favor led to the settlement.
First, in July, McDaniel received a favorable ruling from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel affirmed a lower-court ruling denying the department’s motion to dismiss, which allowed McDaniel’s case to proceed to trial.
Second, he said having a new director who was amenable to changing the policy helped. Anne L. Precythe was confirmed as the director of the department in February 2017.
Rothert said his client’s case tracks with events within the White House press corps in recent weeks, pointing to the White House’s revocation of a CNN journalist’s pass. The White House restored Jim Acosta’s press pass on Nov. 19, nearly two weeks after revoking it following a heated exchange with President Donald Trump. The administration’s move sparked criticism that it was punishing a reporter for asking questions that the president found disagreeable.
“A free press is foundational to the public’s right to have some oversight over the government and we can’t have government officials making decisions, based on a reporter’s viewpoints, over who has access,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the department could not immediately be reached for comment.
The case is McDaniel v. Precythe, 2:16-cv-04243.