Texas executes serial killer with state’s new drug supply

Texas put convicted serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells to death by lethal injection Thursday at the state prison in Huntsville.
(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
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HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- A serial killer was put to death Thursday in Texas after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his lawyers’ demand that the state release information about where it gets its lethal injection drug.

Tommy Lynn Sells, 49, was the first inmate to be injected with a dose of newly replenished pentobarbital that Texas prison officials obtained to replace an expired supply of the powerful sedative.

Sells declined to give a statement. As the drug began flowing into his arms inside the death chamber in Huntsville, Sells took a few breaths, his eyes closed and he began to snore. After less than a minute, he stopped moving. He was pronounced dead 13 minutes later, at 6:27 p.m.


Sells’ lawyers had made a plea to the Supreme Court earlier in the day after a federal appeals court on Wednesday said the execution could proceed on schedule. A lower court had stopped the execution earlier Wednesday, ordering the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to reveal more information about its drug supplier, but the ruling was quickly tossed on appeal.

Sells, who claimed to have committed as many as 70 killings across the U.S., was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing a 13-year-old Texas girl in 1999. He also lost an appeal before the high court that contended his case should be reviewed because he had poor legal help during his murder trial.

Sells’ attorneys had argued they needed to know the name of the pharmacy providing the state with pentobarbital used in executions in order to verify the drug’s quality and protect Sells from unconstitutional pain and suffering.

But the Supreme Court, like the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, sided with Texas prison officials, who argued that information about the drug supplier must be kept secret to protect the pharmacy from threats of violence. The high court justices did not elaborate on why they made the decision, which came about an hour before Sells’ scheduled execution.

State attorneys argued the new pentobarbital stock falls within the acceptable ranges of potency. Sells’ attorneys said they had no way of confirming that.

The Supreme Court last month rejected similar arguments from a Missouri inmate’s attorneys, who challenged the secrecy surrounding the state’s source for execution drugs, and the condemned prisoner was put to death.


Questions about the source of execution drugs have arisen in several states in recent months as numerous drug makers -- particularly in Europe, where opposition to capital punishment is strong -- have refused to sell their products if they will be used in executions.

That’s led several state prison systems to use compounding pharmacies, which are not as heavily regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as more conventional pharmacies.

A batch of pentobarbital that Texas purchased from a compounding pharmacy in suburban Houston expired at the end of March. The pharmacy refused to sell the state more drugs, citing threats it received after its name was made public.

Texas found a new, undisclosed supplier.

The court case challenging the state’s stance also included 44-year-old Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas, who is scheduled for execution next week. But the 5th Circuit ruling affected only Sells.

Sells’ execution was the fifth lethal injection this year in Texas, the nation’s busiest state for the death penalty.

A jury convicted him of capital murder in 2000 for the stabbing of 13-year-old Kaylene Harris and slashing of her 10-year-old friend, Krystal Surles, who survived and helped police find Sells. The girls were attacked on New Year’s Eve 1999 as they slept in Harris’ home in Del Rio, about 150 miles west of San Antonio.