Texas death row inmates file lawsuit claiming state plans to use 'unsafe' drugs for execution

Texas death row inmates file lawsuit claiming state plans to use 'unsafe' drugs for execution
Texas death row inmates, from left, John Balentine, Robert Fratta, and Wesley Ruiz claim in the lawsuit that Texas plans to use unsafe execution drugs (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP)

HOUSTON, TEXAS: According to a complaint filed by three death row inmates, Texas intends to utilize expired and dangerous drugs to perform executions early this year, in violation of state law. Prison authorities say that the state's supply of execution drugs is safe. 

Robert Fratta will be the first to be put to death on January 10. The lawsuit filed by Fratta, Wesley Ruiz, and John Balentine was placed on hold by the state's highest criminal court of appeals on Friday while it reviewed an appeal filed by the Texas Attorney General's Office. The state prefers that a criminal court decide a case not a civil one.

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Attorney Shawn Nolan for Balentine and Ruiz, who will both be executed in February, has blasted Texas' privacy in aspects relating to its execution protocols. Beginning in 2015, state legislators outlawed the disclosure of drug suppliers for executions. The law was upheld in 2019 by the Texas Supreme Court, as per the Associated Press report. "Texas continues to just really rely on secrecy in these executions and that’s why they’re trying to do an end run around this lawsuit because they don’t want to tell anybody that these drugs are expired," Nolan stated.

According to Nolan, the detainees' attorneys have requested an evidentiary hearing to ascertain if the prisoners face a "serious risk of pain and suffering in the execution process." Since Texas was the first state to use lethal injections for executions in 1982, there have been a number of issues related to medications, disconnected needles, and difficulty finding suitable veins, among other things.

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"All lethal injection drugs are within their use dates and have been appropriately tested," Amanda Hernandez, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, stated in an email Tuesday. But Michaela Almgren, a professor of pharmacology at the University of South Carolina, claimed in a 15-page statement submitted in support of the death row inmates' lawsuit that she came to the conclusion that "all the pentobarbital in TDCJ's possession is expired, as it is far beyond" the specified beyond use date after analyzing state records. "A drug that has surpassed its (beyond use date) is at risk of stability and sterility failings and may not retain sufficient potency, thus it must not be used," Almgren penned.

She discovered that some pentobarbital vials had been stored at room temperature for more than 630 days, while others had been there for more than 1,300 days, far above the 24-hour restriction for beyond-use dates. The maximum time after which such compounded drugs may not be used is 45 days if they are frozen. As per Fox's report, attorneys for the prisoners were able to obtain departmental papers that revealed testing of the pentobarbital supply's potency by prison officials resulted in an extension of the drug's expiry dates to September and November. 

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According to Nolan, utilizing outdated medications would be against the Texas Pharmacy Act and the Texas Controlled Substances Act, among other state crimes. Fratta entered the case after it was initially filed. According to the attorneys for all three prisoners, they are not attempting to prevent the state from "carrying out lawful executions." "If the state wants to go forward with these executions, they can do that. They just need to get non-expired drugs," Nolan stated.

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