A federal judge has halted two Texas executions until state officials reveal where they got the drugs for the lethal injections — the latest skirmish in a nationwide battle over secrecy and capital punishment.
Tommy Lynn Sells, who was convicted of the 1999 stabbing murder of a 13-year-old girl and who allegedly confessed to many other slayings, was scheduled for a Thursday execution. Rapist-murderer Ramiro Hernandez Llanas was scheduled to die next week.
But the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's refusal to disclose which compounding pharmacy provided the lethal doses of pentobarbital has put those plans on hold.
U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore issued a temporary injunction Wednesday stopping both executions until the state gives its supplier's name to the condemned men's attorneys.
"While the state has provided plaintiffs information about the process by which they will be executed, it has masked information about the product that will kill them," Gilmore wrote.
Texas jailers argued they need to keep the name of the drug connection secret to protect them from threats and harassment — even though the state's own attorney general ruled in 2011 that the details should be public and a state judge ruled last week that they could be released under a protective order.
Defense lawyers say they must know the origin of the execution drugs so they can investigate their quality and ensure they would not cause an excruciating death in violation of the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
Gilmore's order "honors and reflects the crucial importance of transparency in the execution process," Sells' and Llanas' lawyers, Maurie Levin and Jonathan Ross, said in a statement.
"We hope that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will finally decide to comply with the law, and cease attempting to shroud in secrecy one aspect of their job that, above all others, should be conducted in the light of day."
The prison agency had no immediate comment, but the state has already given notice that it intends to appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and called the prisoners' challenge "nothing more than a calculated attempt to postpone their executions."
The battle over pharmacy confidentiality has been playing out in states across the country since drug manufacturers stopped selling their wares for executions, causing a nationwide shortage.
Judges in some states have allowed executions to go forward, while others have raised concerns.
So far, the U.S. Supreme Court has not stopped a lethal injection over the issue, though four of the nine justices indicated they would have temporarily halted the Missouri execution of kidnapper, murderer and rapist Jeffrey Ferguson last week.
Mississippi wanted to execute Michelle Byrom, on death row after being convicted in the murder-for-hire of her abusive husband, last week. But before the courts could even weigh in on her challenge to the state's drug-secrecy policy, an appeals panel granted her a new trial.