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AP Exclusive: Executioners sanitized official reports of federal inmates’ last moments

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AP legal affairs reporter Michael Tarm witnessed 10 of the unprecedented 13 federal executions in the final six months of the Trump administration, diligently taking notes on what he saw in the chamber, from the inmates’ last words to their last breaths.

Weeks after the last execution he witnessed in mid-January,something nagged at him: how the executioner’s official account buried in court filings did not jibe with what he had observed during the execution. Tarm went back,looked through hundreds of filings and uncovered more executioner accounts. He found those,too,were similarly sanitized descriptions of what happened inside the death chamber.

In other filings and court transcripts he discovered,he saw that his own accounts,and those of other journalists, had been aggressively challenged by government attorneys before judges.

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A vial of pentobarbital used in the executions of two inmates in July 2020, according to court filings, is shown in a photo provided by the U.S. Department of Justice. The government obscured part of the information on the vial, saying it didn’t want to disclose the supplier of the drug. – U.S. Department of Justice via AP

His reporting resulted in a stunning exclusive on how the executioners all used euphemisms like “snored” and “fell asleep” while Tarm himself saw inmates’ stomachs dramatically shuddering and jerking in the minutes after they received lethal injections of pentobarbital. Inmates’ lawyers said those midsection movements proved prisoners were suffering from flash pulmonary edema,in which fluid rushes into lungs and airways, causing pain akin to drowning.

The court documents revealed the government relied on executioners’ omissions of the heaving stomachs to help convince courts the execution method did not violate constitutional prohibitions against “cruel and unusual” punishment.

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The United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute in Terre Haute, Ind., is shown July 17, 2020 as federal executions were resuming after a 17-year pause. – AP Photo / Michael Conroy

Tarm bolstered his own observations with other witness descriptions,including one from a spiritual adviser inside the death chamber during an execution who said the inmate spoke of a painful burning sensation after receiving the injection. Tarm noted he couldn’t hear that inmate’s complaints directly because — consistent with secrecy surrounding the process — executioners had switched off the audio feed to media witness rooms before the pentobarbital was administered.

The sanitized executioner accounts,Tarm realized, raised serious questions about whether officials misled courts to ensure the executions would be completed before Joe Biden,a death penalty foe, took office. No president in more than 120 years had overseen as many federal executions as Donald Trump.

His story — part of a series of exclusive execution stories by Tarm,Mike Balsamo and Mike Sisak under the guidance of law enforcement team leader Colleen Long — was picked up by 175 news outlets,had 175,000 pageviews on AP News and was retweeted thousands of times. It also led Politico’s Playbook and the Marshal Project’s criminal justice newsletter. Newsweek cited AP’s story in its own reporting on growing calls for an investigation into the discrepancies in executioner accounts exposed by Tarm.

For backing up his own observations with rigorous reporting to hold the federal government accountable for its official accounts of the executions, Tarm earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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