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A Texas killer says a prison fire damaged injection drugs. He wants a judge to stop his execution

Jedidiah Murphy.
Jedidiah Murphy.
(Texas Department of Criminal Justice via Associated Press)
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Attorneys for a condemned Texas killer have asked a federal judge to stop his execution, alleging the drugs he is to be injected with next week were exposed to extreme heat and smoke during a recent fire, making them unsafe.

The Texas attorney general’s office says testing done after the fire on samples of the state’s supplies of pentobarbital, the drug used in executions, showed they “remain potent and sterile.”

Jedidiah Murphy is scheduled to be executed Tuesday. He was condemned for the fatal October 2000 shooting of 80-year-old Bertie Lee Cunningham, of Garland, a Dallas suburb, during a carjacking.

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In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Austin, Murphy’s attorneys allege that during an Aug. 25 fire that caused “catastrophic damage” to the administration building of a prison unit in Huntsville, the execution drugs the state uses were exposed to excessively high temperatures, smoke and water.

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Records from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice show the agency has stored pentobarbital at the Huntsville Unit, located about 70 miles north of Houston.

According to a copy of a Huntsville Fire Department report included in the lawsuit, a prison guard and a fire captain entered the burning building to check “on the pharmacy,” but as they approached the third floor, they had to evacuate because “the area was about to be overtaken by fire.”

When pentobarbital is exposed to high temperatures, it can quickly degrade, compromising its chemical structure and reducing its potency, the lawsuit said.

“This creates substantial risks of serious, severe, and superadded harm and pain,” according to the lawsuit.

Murphy’s lawyers also allege the criminal justice department is using expired execution drugs, a claim made by seven other death row inmates in a December lawsuit.

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In responding to Murphy’s lawsuit, the Texas attorney general’s office submitted a laboratory report of test results completed in late September of two pentobarbital samples. One sample had a potency level of 94.2% while the other was found to be 100% potent. Both samples also passed sterility tests and had acceptable levels of bacterial toxins, according to the report.

The lab report “also undermines Murphy’s claim that TDCJ is improperly using expired drugs in its executions — the Defendants’ testing shows that, even if Murphy’s allegation that the drugs are expired is true — which it is not — they remain potent and sterile,” the attorney general’s office wrote in its response.

Murphy’s lawsuit is the latest challenge in recent years to Texas’ execution procedures.

In the December lawsuit filed by the seven death row inmates, a civil judge in Austin preliminarily agreed with their claims. But her order was stopped by Texas’ top criminal appeals court. Five of the inmates have since been executed, even though the lawsuit remains pending.

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Texas has worked to keep secret the details of its execution procedures, with lawmakers in 2015 banning the disclosure of drug suppliers for executions. Murphy’s attorneys had accused the Department of Criminal Justice of blocking their efforts to find out whether the fire damaged the drugs.

But the recent lawsuits have offered a rare glimpse into lesser-known aspects of Texas’ execution procedures.

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Court documents from the lawsuit by the seven inmates showed that the compounding pharmacy or pharmacies that supply the state with pentobarbital filled an order Jan. 5.

The court documents also include a copy of receipts from the last few years of purchases the department made from its supplier for pentobarbital and for testing of the drug. Some of the receipts are for purchases of over $4,000 and $6,100. “Thank you for shopping @ ... Returns with Receipt Only,” is printed at the bottom of these receipts, with the name of the business redacted in black.

Like other states in recent years, Texas has turned to compounding pharmacies to obtain pentobarbital after traditional drugmakers refused to sell their products to prison agencies in the U.S.

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