MFIA Clinic Files Appeal in Case on Public Right to Witness Executions

The Media Freedom and Information Access (MFIA) Clinic at Yale Law School has appealed the dismissal of its Virginia lawsuit asserting a constitutional right to witness executions. The case was filed on behalf of four news organizations.

In the state of Virginia, the public’s ability to view the entirety of an execution has been denied since 2017. The execution protocol was revised that year to block inspection of the preliminary stages of an execution after it took more than 30 minutes to insert IV lines during the execution of a convicted killer. The Richmond Times Dispatch, Associated Press, Guardian News and Media, and Gannett Co. soon filed suit, contending that that the new protocol impermissibly prevents witnesses from observing crucial indicators of prisoner treatment during the execution.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit “to vindicate the public’s right, through their representatives in the press, to witness the entirety of executions conducted by the Virginia Department of Corrections,” the suit explains.

The case asserts the existence of a First Amendment right of access to witness executions in their entirety.

“The First Amendment protects the right of the public to know what its government is doing, such that one can meaningfully participate in democratic self-governance,” explained Francesca Procaccini, a MFIA lawyer who helped spearhead the litigation. “Executions are a quintessential government proceeding and part of a state’s criminal justice process…they fall squarely within the First Amendment right of access.”

Oral argument is anticipated in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit late this year. The MFIA Clinic is working with local co-counsel from the Richmond law firm Christian and Barton, LLP.

By Leah Ferentinos