updated 5/21/2007 6:45:24 PM ET 2007-05-21T22:45:24

Missouri lawmakers passed a bill protecting the anonymity of the state's executioners and allowing them to sue anyone — even a news organization — who discloses their names.

Some of the 37 other states with the death penalty also shield the identities of their executioners. But if this measure is signed into law, Missouri may be the only state to attach a specific penalty to revealing the names, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Missouri Press Association complained that the measure would violate the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press.

State Corrections Director Larry Crawford said the bill should make it easier to recruit a doctor to assist in executions. For the past year, Missouri has been unable to find a willing physician with an expertise in anesthesia, as demanded by a federal judge, and executions have been on hold.

"The value of the public's need to know is trumped by the safety of both the guard and doctor and their family," Crawford said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Matt Blunt would not say whether he would sign the bill, which won final passage last Thursday.

Under the Missouri measure, members of the media or others who knowingly disclose the identity of executioners could be sued for damages. An earlier version of the bill would have made it a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

"I don't think the First Amendment allows any state to hold someone either criminally liable or liable for damages for publication of truthful information," said Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association.

Dieter, whose group monitors execution trends, said he understands the need to protect the identity of prison employees, who might be harmed if exposed. But he said it is essential to name the doctor who oversees an execution to know whether he or she is qualified.

"It's a democracy. This is how we judge things. We can't assume the state did everything OK," he said. "It seems very important for states to be as public as possible because there have been errors and a lack of professionalism. There is nothing about the death penalty that should be secret."

Crawford said the legislation was prompted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's disclosure last July that Dr. Alan Doerhoff participated in Missouri executions.

Doerhoff's role emerged when he testified anonymously before a federal judge in a case challenging the state's lethal-injection procedures. He came under criticism after disclosing that he was dyslexic and occasionally altered the amount of anesthetic given to inmates, and after news reports said he had been sued for malpractice more than 20 times. He later denied he was dyslexic.

Last month, the state said it will no longer use his services.

Missouri has 48 people on death row.

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