Ark. death row inmates want to know where Texas gets its death drugs
The inmates are asking Texas to name its lethal injection supplier, in hopes of convincing their own state to switch to a drug they say could be less painful
By Keri Blakinger
HOUSTON — A group of Arkansas death row inmates is asking Texas to name its lethal injection supplier, in the hope of convincing their own state to switch to a drug they say could be less painful, like the one used here in the Huntsville death chamber.
The move comes as part of a legal battle launched in early 2017, when Arkansas tried executing eight men in 10 days as the state's drugs were set to expire. The courts intervened in a number of those cases, and the four men who weren't put to death have since fought the state's efforts to execute them using midazolam, a lethal injection drug repeatedly linked to "botched' executions.
Instead, the prisoners say in court filings, they'd rather be put to death the way it's done in Texas.
To make that happen, the condemned inmates are asking a court to force the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to reveal the name of their supplier - not publicly, but under the secrecy of a protective order.
The legal case is unfolding even as condemned Texas killer Danny Bible is challenging his own pending execution, arguing his veins are so bad he can't be put to death. And just like the Arkansas prisoners, Bible has offered up alternative ways to die.
The morbid suggestions stem from a 2015 Supreme Court decision in the case of Oklahoma death row prisoner Richard Glossip, which mandated that inmates challenging the method of their execution must find a better, readily available method.
"That part of the decision has been roundly criticized as inhumane and macabre," said Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center. "It's like a movie villain telling his hostage that he or she can die less painfully but they've got to choose the method of their own demise."
Currently, the Lone Star State uses a single drug, the barbiturate pentobarbital, in its executions. But Arkansas uses a three-drug protocol, laid out in graphic detail in court filings.
The first drug, midazolam, is a benzodiazepine - like Xanax or Valium. It's not an anesthetic, lawyers argue, so the condemned could still feel the effects of the drugs that come after. The second drug, a paralytic, might make it impossible to see the "agonizing pain" associated with the third drug, the heart-stopping potassium chloride.
"Were there no paralytic, the arousal and pain caused by the potassium chloride would be obvious to any observer," the legal team wrote in the motion filed in federal court earlier this month. "Once the paralysis is total, the recipient is unable to communicate and feels as if he has been buried alive."
It was using that three-drug execution process last year that Arkansas prisoner Kenneth Williams lurched and jerked on the gurney in his final moments, according to court filings.
In their legal quest to avoid a painful death, the prisoners offer up a dark variety of alternatives, including firing squad, sevoflurane gas, diazepam and fentanyl, an oral dose of secobarbital and pentobarbital.
To show that any of those methods is viable, they have to prove that it's possible to get the drugs involved, which is why the prisoners' lawyers turned to Texas for answers. But, according to a June court filing, the Texas prison system hasn't fully complied with the subpoena issued in connection with the case, which is set to go to trial in November.
"The TDCJ has refused to provide any of the requested information," the prisoners' lawyers write. "Thus, plaintiffs seek an order compelling the TDCJ to comply with their obligations pursuant to plaintiffs' valid subpoena issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas."
A Texas prison spokesman declined to comment, but in a court filing late Monday the state responded to the prisoners' motion, arguing that the subpoena wasn't sent to the right person, that it was overbroad, and that the information is shielded by Texas secrecy laws.
This isn't the first time one state's death row prisoners have lobbied for release of information about another state's lethal injection drugs; two Mississippi inmates in 2016 tried to get similar information out of the Missouri Department of Corrections. That effort failed. Now, the Arkansas case could lead to more court filings and requests for information in other death penalty states.
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