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July 9, 2018

Texas proves, yet again, where there is a will to get executions drugs, there seems to be a way

This local article from Texas, headlined "With 7 execution dates on the calendar, Texas just got more lethal injection drugs," spotlights yet again how the folks in Texas are uniquely able to continue with capital justice without much of a hitch. Here are the details and some context:

Amid speculation about its ability to carry out the flurry of new executions on the calendar, state records show the Texas prison system in recent weeks received 15 more doses of the powerful barbiturate used in its Huntsville death chamber.  The additional vials ensure that the state can now carry out all the currently scheduled death dates, but some experts say it raises questions about how officials obtained new doses of pentobarbital at a time when drug-makers have backed away from its use in executions.

"That I'm aware of, there is no legal source for pentobarbital, compounded or otherwise. None," said Maurie Levin, a defense attorney with expertise in lethal injection litigation. "All the companies that previously provided compounded pentobarbital are now subject to end-use controls by the manufacturers and if they are distributing it to a prison for use in executions they are violating that contract."

The state pushed back against that suggestion.  "The Texas Department of Criminal Justice complies with all state and federal laws," said department spokesman Jeremy Desel.

But whatever the provenance of the added supplies, the fact that they exist could impact death-sentenced inmates in other states. Weeks before the new doses showed up on the state's logs, a group of prisoners in Arkansas asked Texas to turn over the name of its lethal injection supplier, in the hope of convincing their own state to switch to the drug the Lone Star State uses.  Midazolam, one of the drugs currently used in Arkansas, has been repeatedly linked to "botched" executions.

Since 2012, Texas has relied on a single drug — compounded sodium pentobarbital — to carry out lethal injections.  The state came close to exhausting its supplies with executions still on the calendar in spring 2015. But in the end, TDCJ got more without needing to push back any death dates, prison officials said previously.

Then in January of this year, the state's stash of drugs was set to expire days before a scheduled execution. The state replenished its supply in time.  But it wasn't immediately clear whether they'd obtained new doses or established a new expiration date for the ones they already had, a possibility that's been raised repeatedly in lawsuits seeking to challenge the state's lethal injection procedures.

Again by May, Texas seemed poised to run out of drugs with three executions scheduled beyond the expiration date of the drugs.  Then on June 18, records show the addition of 15 five-gram vials.

In recent years, drug-makers have put up roadblocks to states seeking execution drugs, forcing states to switch protocols in some places.  "Every major pharmaceutical manufacturer in the U.S. has policies against the distribution of its medicines for unapproved medical purposes, and killing prisoners has never been an approved medical purpose," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.  Many drug-makers, he said, also specifically prohibit the sale of their drugs for use in executions.

"If Texas is getting these drugs legally that's important to know for death penalty cases across the country," Dunham said.  "If they're getting them illegally or by making misrepresentations to pharmaceutical distributors that's also important to know because states should not be violating the law or breaching contracts in the name of law enforcement."

It's not clear exactly where the state is getting its drugs, and state secrecy laws keep the department from revealing its source.

July 9, 2018 at 12:44 PM | Permalink

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