Prisoners claim Texas plans to use unsafe drugs for execution

HOUSTON (AP) — Texas plans to use expired and unsafe drugs to carry out executions earlier this year in violation of state law, three death row inmates in a lawsuit allege.

Prison officials dismiss this claim and say the government’s supply of executions is safe.

The first execution of Robert Fratta is scheduled for January 10th. The state’s highest court of criminal appeals suspended the lawsuit filed by Fratta, Wesley Ruiz and John Ballentine on Friday while it considers an appeal from the Texas Attorney General’s office. The state wants the case to be heard by a criminal court, not a civil one.

Sean Nolan, an attorney for Ballentine and Ruiz, who were sentenced to death in February, has criticized Texas’ secrecy regarding execution procedures.

State lawmakers banned the disclosure of drug suppliers for executions starting in 2015. The Texas Supreme Court upheld the law in 2019.

“Texas continues to just rely on secrecy in these executions, and that’s why they’re trying to sidestep this lawsuit, because they don’t want to tell anyone these drugs are expired,” Nolan said.

According to Nolan, the inmates’ lawyers have demanded an evidentiary hearing to determine whether prisoners are at “serious risk of pain and suffering during the execution process.”

The history of problems with lethal injection has been around since Texas became the first state to use this method of execution in 1982. Some problems included difficulty finding usable veins, detaching needles, or drug problems.

Like other states in recent years, Texas has turned to prescription pharmacies for pentobarbital, which it uses for executions, after traditional drug makers refused to sell their products to US prison facilities.

“All lethal injectables are within their useful life and have been properly tested,” Amanda Hernandez, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, said via email Tuesday.

But in a 15-page statement filed in support of the death row inmates’ lawsuit, Mikaela Almgren, a professor of pharmacology at the University of South Carolina, said she concluded after reviewing government documents that “all of the pentobarbital in the TDCJ’s possession is expired because it is far beyond the specified date of non-use.

“An expired drug (by expiration date) is at risk of instability and sterility and may not retain sufficient potency so it cannot be used,” Almgren wrote.

She found that some pentobarbital vials were over 630 days old, while others had a shelf life of over 1,300 days, well beyond their 24-hour shelf life when stored at room temperature. If these medicines are frozen, they have a 45-day shelf life.

Department records obtained by prisoner lawyers showed that prison officials tested the effectiveness of their pentobarbital supplies, extending its use through September and November.

But Almgren called the state’s testing “completely unscientific and incorrect, and therefore the results are invalid.”

Nolan said using expired drugs would violate several state laws, including the Texas Pharmacy Act and the Texas Controlled Substances Act.

Fratta joined the lawsuit after it was filed. Lawyers for all three prisoners say they are not trying to stop the state from “carrying out legal executions.”

“If the state wants to continue these executions, it can do so. They just need to get unexpired drugs,” Nolan said.

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