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Judge orders Texas prison to disclose the source of execution drug supply

Published time: March 27, 2014 19:03
AFP Photo / Caroline Groussain

AFP Photo / Caroline Groussain

Prison officials in Texas will have to tell the attorneys for two death row inmates scheduled to die behind bars next month where they’ve obtained new lethal execution drugs, a judge there ruled Thursday.

District Judge Suzanne Covington said that Texas Department of Criminal Justice must disclose the identity in court of the supplier that’s providing a new batch of lethal injection drugs, the Associated Press reported from Austin, TX Thursday afternoon. Her ruling does not compel the Texas DOCJ to make the information public.

AP reporters Michael Graczyk and Paul Weber wrote that Judge Covington handed down this week’s decision just one day after attorneys for the state’s criminal justice department told the court that the pharmacists making the drugs may come under attack if their identity is disclosed, as evidenced by a threat assessment report and other materials presented by the prosecution in an attempt to keep the details of the drug undisclosed.

"The circumstances have changed from 2012. We can show there's evidence out there that there has been a significant, real concrete threat to similarly situated pharmacists," Assistant Attorney General Nicole Bunker-Henderson said, according to the AP.

But attorneys for the two inmates — convicted killers Tommy Lynn Sells and Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas — said they had the right to know the name of the party responsible for providing the DOCJ with the sedative, pentobarbital, ahead of the executions scheduled for April 3 and 9, respectively.

The state’s current supply of the drug is set to expire on the first of the month, but officials for the prison have secured a new source that they’ve so far succeeded at keeping secret.

"Time is truly of the essence," the lawyers wrote in a joint suit cited by the AP. "Without information about where the drugs come from, and the purity, potency and integrity of those drugs, neither Mr. Hernandez-Llanas nor Mr. Sells can evaluate the risk that their executions will subject them to cruel and unusual pain in violation of the Eighth Amendment."

According to the AP, one of those lawyers — Phil Durst — told the court that he had concerns about letting his client be killed by a drug without learning details about it first.

"Is it eBay? Did they have some good customer service rankings? We have no idea where it's from or how it was made," Durst said. "Maybe this stuff is A-OK. Maybe this stuff was laced with strychnine off the street. We don't know, and they need to know before they inflict the ultimate penalty.”

After Thursday’s ruling, his colleague Maurie Levin told NBC News that the judge’s decision indicates “that it is unacceptable to keep prisoners or the public in the dark regarding how executions are carried out.”

"The condemned must have clear information about the drugs to be used, so that the courts can make an accurate assessment of the viability and constitutionality of any impending execution,” Levin said.

According to NBC News, the district court may decide at a later date if the identity of the suppliers can be shared with individuals not immediately involved in representing Hernandez-Llanas and Sells.