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Federal judge halts Texas executions, citing secrecy over drugs used

Crime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemCourts and the Judiciary

A federal judge has halted the scheduled executions of two convicts in Texas until the state discloses details about the drugs that would be used to kill them.

In a five-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore in Houston on Wednesday issued a temporary injunction stopping the execution of Tommy Lynn Sells, set for Thursday, and of Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas, scheduled for April 9. Both men have been convicted of murder and were set to be executed by lethal injection.

The Texas ruling is the latest involving the issue of secrecy in describing the drugs used in executions and whether the state procedures conform to constitutional requirements banning cruel and unusual punishment. Lawyers in several states, including Texas and Oklahoma, have argued they need more information from the state about the quality and suppliers of the drugs. States have generally cited security requirements for keeping those details secret.

Until 2010, most states used a three-drug cocktail, including an anesthetic and a paralyzing agent, to execute inmates. But some suppliers, particularly companies in European countries that have banned the death penalty, have come under public pressure and have stopped making the medications available for carrying out executions. That has touched off problems for many states, forcing them to seek other sources for drugs needed for executions.

In Texas, officials have said they obtained a supply of the drug, pentobarbital, two weeks ago. But the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has cited unspecified security concerns in refusing to disclose the source and other details about the sedative it planned to use. That prompted the attorneys representing the convicts to sue, arguing they needed the information to evaluate the drugs.

Judge Gilmore agreed with that argument, writing: "The state's secrecy regarding the product to be used for lethal injection has precluded Plaintiffs from evaluating or challenging the constitutionality of the method of execution."

Texas immediately filed a notice of appeal with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said in an e-mail.

Defense attorneys praised Gilmore's ruling.

"The District Court's order honors and reflects the crucial importance of transparency in the execution process," attorneys Maurie Levin and Jonathan Ross, attorneys for the plaintiffs, stated. "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."

In January, Dennis McGuire, an inmate in Ohio, was executed but witnesses reported that he gasped while dying and appeared to be in pain, which would violate constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. That case helped fuel lawsuits in other states seeking information.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit group that tracks death penalty issues, recently told The Los Angels Times that most states have some form of secrecy requirements surrounding executions. At least seven have specific laws on secrecy about the drugs used.

"Every state has had to change its method," Dieter said. "All states are using relatively new drugs without much doctor participation or an anesthesiologist," or are obtaining their drugs from secret sources. "It is natural for courts to be suspicious," he said.

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