Dearth Row: Texas Prisons Scrambling to Find More Execution Drug

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Image: Texas Death Chamber
File - The gurney in the death chamber is shown in this May 27, 2008 file photo from Huntsville, Texas. Pat Sullivan / AP file

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HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Texas' prison agency is scrambling to find a supplier to replenish its inventory of execution drugs, which will be used up if the state goes forward with two lethal injections scheduled for this week and next.

Prison officials only have enough pentobarbital for the scheduled executions of Manuel Vasquez on Wednesday and Randall Mays on March 18, but they don't know how they will conduct lethal injections on four others scheduled for April.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to say why it has not been able to obtain more pentobarbital from the same compounding pharmacy that provided the current batch of the powerful sedative last March. The state switched to that source several months after its previous supplier cut ties, citing hate mail and potential litigation after its name became public through an open records request from The Associated Press.

Prison officials have since waged a legal battle to keep the name of its latest supplier secret, but it's unclear how much longer they can do so after a state judge last year ordered the agency to divulge the source. That ruling is on hold pending the outcome of the state's appeal.

Prisons spokesman Jason Clark said the state's lawyers have advised the agency not to comment on whether the current supplier has backed out or whether the judge's order has affected its ability to find a supplier.

Although Texas, traditionally the nation's busiest death penalty state, faces the most imminent deadline for replenishing its pentobarbital supply, other states are experiencing similar problems.

Texas has executed a nation-leading 521 inmates since 1982, when it became the first state to use lethal injection. It's now been nearly three years since Texas began using pentobarbital as its only capital punishment drug, switching in July 2012 after one of the chemicals in the previous three-drug mixture no longer was available.

The last 17 Texas executions, stretching back to September 2013, have used compounded pentobarbital, and the last nine from compounding pharmacies the state has refused to identify.

Texas officials have insisted the identity should remain secret, citing a "threat assessment" signed by Texas Department of Public Safety director Steven McCraw that says pharmacies selling execution drugs face "a substantial threat of physical harm." Law enforcement officials have declined to elaborate on the nature of those threats.

The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, has refused to block punishments based on challenges to secrecy laws. However, the high court is reviewing Oklahoma's lethal injection method, resulting in a hold on executions there, after a punishment using the sedative midazolam followed by two other drugs went awry. Oklahoma lawmakers now are considering a switch to nitrogen gas as the first alternative to injection while officials in other states are considering a return to firing squads or the electric chair.

IN-DEPTH

— The Associated Press

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