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March 20, 2014

Texas officials get hooked up by special secret (capital) drug dealer

As reported in this AP story, headlined "Texas finds new execution drug supply," Texas officials seem to have special abilities to acquire the drugs needed to continue with executions. Here are the (cloak-and-dagger?) details:

Texas has obtained a new batch of the drugs it uses to execute death row inmates, allowing the state to continue carrying out death sentences once its existing supply expires at the end of the month.  But correction officials will not say where they bought the drugs, arguing that information must be kept secret to protect the safety of its new supplier. In interviews with The Associated Press, officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also refused to say whether providing anonymity to its new supplier of the sedative pentobarbital was a condition of its purchase.

The decision to keep details about the drugs and their source secret puts the agency at odds with past rulings of the state attorney general's office, which has said the state's open records law requires the agency to disclose specifics about the drugs it uses to carry out lethal injections.  "We are not disclosing the identity of the pharmacy because of previous, specific threats of serious physical harm made against businesses and their employees that have provided drugs used in the lethal injection process," said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark.

The dispute in the state that executes more inmates than any other comes as major drugmakers, many based in Europe, have stopped selling pentobarbital and other substances used in lethal injections to U.S. corrections agencies because they oppose the death penalty.  Until obtaining its new supply from the unknown provider, Texas only had enough pentobarbital to continue carrying out executions through the end of March. Earlier this week, a court rescheduled two executions set for this month in Oklahoma — another leading death penalty state — because prison officials were having trouble obtaining the drugs, including pentobarbital, needed for its lethal injections.

Such legal challenges have grown more common as the drug shortages have forced several states to change their execution protocols and buy drugs from alternate suppliers, including compounding pharmacies that are not as heavily regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as more conventional pharmacies....

Alan Futrell, an attorney for convicted murderer Tommy Sells, whose scheduled April 3 execution would make him the first to be put to death with Texas' new drug supply, said the issue could become fodder for legal attempts to delay his sentence.  "This might be good stuff," he said.  "And the roads are getting very short here."

But Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment organization, said it was doubtful that Texas would get to a point where a lack of drugs led officials to fully suspend capital punishment.  "There are a lot of drugs, and Texas can be creative in finding some," he said.

Texas' current inventory of pentobarbital, the sedative it has used in lethal injections since 2012, will expire April 1.  The state executed one inmate, Ray Jasper, on Wednesday evening and has scheduled executions for five more, including one next week.  That execution, like Wednesday's, will draw from the existing stockpile purchased last year from a suburban Houston compounding pharmacy, Clark said.  The new batch of drugs presumably would be used for three Texas inmates set to die in April, including Sells, and one in May.

Sixteen convicted killers were executed in Texas last year, more than in any other state. Jasper's execution was Texas' third this year, bringing the total to 511 since capital punishment in the state resumed in 1982.  The total accounts for nearly one-third of all the executions in the U.S. since a 1976 Supreme Court ruling allowed capital punishment to resume....

Policies in some states, like Missouri and Oklahoma, keep the identities of drug suppliers secret, citing privacy concerns.  Clark, in refusing AP's request to answer any specific questions about the new batch of drugs, said after prison officials identified the suburban Houston compounding pharmacy that provided its existing supply of pentobarbital, that pharmacy was targeted for protests by death penalty opponents.  It sought to have Texas return the pentobarbital it manufactured, and prison officials refused.

Texas law does not specifically spell out whether officials can refuse to make the name of drug suppliers public, but Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office has on three occasions rejected arguments by the agency that disclosing that information would put the drug supply and manufacturers at risk.  In a 2012 opinion, his office rejected the argument that disclosing the inventory would allow others to figure out the state's suppliers, dismissing the same kind of security concerns raised this week....

Clark said the prison agency planned to ask Abbott to reconsider the issue. "We're not in conflict with the law," Clark said. "We plan to seek an AG's opinion, which is appropriate in a situation like this, and the AG's office will determine whether it's releasable."

March 20, 2014 at 10:49 AM | Permalink

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Comments

The idea that we should suspend capital punishment for a lack of drugs makes as much sense as the idea that we should suspend building prisons for a lack of bricks.

Or suspend building halfway houses for a lack of lumber.

Good grief.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 20, 2014 11:13:24 AM

I read an article that stated Pennsylvania had the necessary drugs to carry out executions. We all know the state never seems to get to the finish line without a reversal somewhere. Why doesn't the state sell it to another one that actually carries them out?

Posted by: DaveP | Mar 20, 2014 7:06:22 PM

I agree with Bill in the abstract. While I don't agree with capital punishment, I think it should be legislatively abolished rather than obstructed partisan style. That being said, I do think compliance with the law is the most important thing if we're going to have legally authorized capital punishment. And that includes with it the necessary transparency for others to determine if there is compliance. Those with a vested interest in making sure capital sentences are carried out should not also have exclusive discretion to determine if they are following the laws without any oversight.

Of course, if there is an absence of building materials, construction does stop. No one substitutes straw when they've run out of bricks (My coffee hasn't kicked in, I'm entitled to make a Three Little Pigs metaphor).

Posted by: Erik M | Mar 21, 2014 8:48:37 AM

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