Protesters restricted from Terre Haute execution site sue ISP

Protesters kept away from the federal prison in Terre Haute during executions last month have filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing the Indiana State Police violated their First Amendment rights by erecting roadblocks and preventing them from holding vigils immediately outside the entrance of the facility.

Death penalty opponents and organizations from around the country along with the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods filed the lawsuit Tuesday against the Superintendent of the Indiana State Police. The plaintiffs were at the federal penitentiary to protest the three executions in July, but they say they were prevented from protesting on public property near the facility.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim their ability to express their opposition to the capital punishment was severely compromised because the state law enforcement agency erected roadblocks which kept the groups and their members nearly 2 miles from the entrance of the federal prison. They are asking the Southern Indiana District Court to issue an injunction to allow them to protest immediately outside the main entrance during the executions that are scheduled for August and September.

The case is Ashley K. Eve, Abraham J. Bonowitz, Bill Pelke, Karen Burkhart, Rev. Bill Breeden, Death Penalty Action, Indiana Abolition Coalition, Sisters of Providence of Saint-Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, v. Superintendent, Indiana State Police, in his official capacity, 1:20-cv-2036. The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.

“These restrictions obstruct one of the most fundamental rights protected by the Constitution, political speech,” said Ken Falk, legal director of the ACLU of Indiana. “There is absolutely no justification for this overly broad ‘no-protest zone.’ The Indiana State Police are severely compromising protesters’ ability to express themselves and to express their opposition to the death penalty while in sight of the prison.”

Indiana State Police declined to comment, saying “It is the policy of the Indiana State Police to refrain from speaking about any pending litigation.”

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs wanted to publicly demonstrate near the Terre Haute prison on the days the executions were scheduled last month. They wanted to be able to get as close to the facility as possible so they could stand vigil to observe the area where the sentences were to be carried out.

The protesters had planned to hold vigils directly opposite the main entrance, using part of a parking lot of a Dollar General store and the public right-of-way. However, plaintiffs assert hours before the scheduled executions, ISP set up roadblocks that prevented people from getting any closer than about 1.6 miles of the entrance. As a result, the protesters had to stand far away from the prison, along U.S. Highway 41, on a car dealership’s property and in the right-of-way.

The lawsuit claims the U.S. Bureau of Prisons offered to bus the protesters to a fenced-in area on prison grounds. Plaintiffs say it was not a satisfactory solution because they would have to be placed there several hours before the executions and remain there in the summer heat with little shelter. They would have had access only to a portable toilet, hand sanitizer and drinking water.

In addition, the protesters would not have been allowed to take in cameras, cellphones, food and many types of signs. Also, they would not have been free to leave until the bureau bussed them out.

The Indiana Abolition Coalition seeks to end the death penalty in Indiana and beyond,” said Stephanie Quiring at the Indiana Abolition Coalition. “IAC members have long stood in protest and vigil at execution sites. The U.S. federal government’s decision to resume executions in July, and carry out three over the course of only five days, is abhorrent. Through this lawsuit, IAC joins with other members of our Indiana communities to protect our right to bear witness to these executions and bring attention to the government’s actions behind prison walls.”  

Read more about the resumption of federal executions in the Aug. 5 edition of Indiana Lawyer.

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