Eleventh Circuit Denies Stay of Execution Despite Challenges to the Georgia’s Secrecy Act

In Jones v. Commissioner, Georgia Department of Corrections, No. 16–10277, 2016 WL 384695 (11th Cir. Feb. 2, 2016), the Eleventh Circuit, in a two-part decision, denied the petitioner, Brandon Jones’s, motion to stay an execution and attached request for an en banc hearing. Jones was an inmate on Georgia’s death row scheduled for execution on February 2, 2016. Jones filed a motion to stay his execution and requested an en banc panel to consider the constitutionality of his claims.

The court first considered the motion to stay and found that Jones’s petition failed on several grounds. Originally, the petitioner filed his claim in the Northern District of Georgia and challenged Georgia’s Lethal Injection Secrecy Act, O.C.G.A. § 42-5-36 (2013) as violating his due process rights under the Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. On appeal, Jones only raised his constitutional challenges under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

To issue a stay, the court considered whether: (1) [Jones] had a substantial likelihood of success on the merits; (2) he would have suffered irreparable injury unless the injunction was issued; (3) the stay would not substantially harm the other litigant; and (4) if issued, the injunction would not have been adverse to the public interest.

Under this test, the court denied the petitioner’s request to stay the execution on four separate grounds. First, the court found that the petitioner’s claim would not succeed on the merits. The court held that binding precedent expressly stated that a prisoner has no right to know the details of the means of his execution. Thus, the petitioner was not denied any right by being denied the details of his execution.

Second, the court held that if the petitioner had raised a claim regarding the Eighth Amendment challenge to his execution, this claim would also have failed as the petitioner failed to detail any alternative method that would have been feasible as an alternative.

Next, the court held that Jones lacked standing to bring his claim before the court. The court found that the Georgia Secrecy Act in no way limited his ability to locate an alternate and feasible method of execution. Therefore, the court found that Jones had not suffered an injury in fact and therefore, had no standing before the court.

Finally, the court looked to equity and considered the state’s interest in maintaining its lethal injection protocol. Here, the State had a strong interest in maintaining the current protocol as the exact method had been used seven times in the prior year. In addition, Jones failed to raise this issue in a timely matter so as to not prejudice the State by raising a last minute appeal.

For these reasons, the court also denied the petitioner’s request to consider the constitutionality of the Secrecy Act in an en banc panel. The court adopted the reasoning of the denial of the motion to stay and also added that granting an en banc hearing is a special circumstance that was not warranted under these set of facts.

Justices Wilson, Martin, Rosenblum, Jill Pryor and Jordan, in part, each joined a dissenting opinion to argue that the Secrecy Act is unconstitutional. In their view, a petitioner cannot challenge the constitutionality of their execution without having sufficient knowledge of the process. The dissent argued that the court improperly failed to conduct a due process analysis under Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970) and Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976). Under such a proper due process analysis the dissenter found that the Secrecy Act denies inmates critical information to challenge executions, that the Secrecy Act violates the petitioner’s constitutional rights, and that there are alternate means Georgia could use to protect the information of the injection process.

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