Judge halts Texas executions over drug secrecy

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FILE – In this Sept. 21, 2011, file photo, a corrections officer keeps watch outside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas. On Tuesday, April 1, 2014, two days before Texas is scheduled to execute convicted killer Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas, its first inmate with a new batch of lethal injection drugs obtained last month, the state prison agency again is seeking to keep the source of the drugs secret, citing threats of violence to pharmacies that sell drugs used in lethal injections. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

FILE – In this Sept. 21, 2011, file photo, a corrections officer keeps watch outside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas. On Tuesday, April 1, 2014, two days before Texas is scheduled to execute convicted killer Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas, its first inmate with a new batch of lethal injection drugs obtained last month, the state prison agency again is seeking to keep the source of the drugs secret, citing threats of violence to pharmacies that sell drugs used in lethal injections. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

This handout image provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows convicted killer Tommy Lynn Sells, who had been set to die Thursday, April 3, 2014. A federal judge on Wednesday, April 2, 2014, issued a temporary injunction stopping the lethal injection saying justice department officials must disclose information to the Sells’ lawyers about the supplier of a new batch of drugs that would be used to kill him. (AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

FILE – Convicted killer Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas is shown in this file image provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. On Tuesday, April 1, 2014, two days before Texas is scheduled to execute Hernandez-Llanas, its first inmate with a new batch of lethal injection drugs obtained last month, the state prison agency again is seeking to keep the source of the drugs secret, citing threats of violence to pharmacies that sell drugs used in lethal injections. (AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice, File)

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HOUSTON (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday halted two executions in Texas, declaring that the state’s prison system must disclose to defense attorneys more information about the supplier of a new batch of lethal-injection drugs.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore issued a temporary injunction halting the executions of Tommy Lynn Sells, a convicted serial killer who was set to die Thursday, and Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas, another inmate scheduled to die next week.

Texas officials have insisted the identity of the drug supplier must be kept secret to protect the company from threats of violence and that the stock of the sedative pentobarbital falls within the acceptable ranges of potency.

Defense attorneys say they must have the name of the supplier so they can verify the quality of the drug and spare condemned inmates from unconstitutional pain and suffering.

Gilmore ordered the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide defense attorneys with information about the supplier and how the drug was tested.

Lawyers for the state planned to appeal. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected similar arguments about execution secrecy in a Missouri case, and the condemned prisoner was put to death.

Gilmore’s ruling “honors the importance of transparency in the execution process,” said Maurie Levin, an attorney for the inmates. “And the order makes it clear this last-minute litigation and stays of execution would not be necessary if (the prison agency) had not ignored the rule of law and tried to shield this information from the public and the light of day.”

Texas prisons spokesman Robert Hurst said the agency had no comment because the matter was still pending in court.

Since obtaining a new supply of pentobarbital two weeks ago, the Department of Criminal Justice had cited unspecified security concerns in refusing to disclose the source and other details about the sedative it plans to use to put inmates to death.

“As a result, the state’s secrecy regarding the product to be used for lethal injection has precluded (the inmates and their attorneys) from evaluating or challenging the constitutionality of the method of execution,” Gilmore wrote in a five-page opinion.

Questions about the source of drugs used to carry out lethal injections have arisen in several states in recent months as numerous drugmakers — particularly in Europe, where opposition to capital punishment is strongest — have refused to sell their products if they will be used in executions.

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

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

The inmates “are entitled to discover how the state plans to put them to death,” said Levin and Jonathan Ross, another attorney in the case.

Levin filed an open-records request on March 11 seeking the name of the supplier from the Department of Criminal Justice.

Last week, defense attorneys won an order from a state court that directed prison officials to identify the new provider of pentobarbital, but only to them. The Texas Supreme Court put that order on hold on Friday and set a deadline for briefs that will arrive after the Sells and Hernandez-Llanas’ scheduled execution dates.

The defense turned next to the federal courts, which resulted in Wednesday’s ruling.

In three previous opinions, the attorney general’s office has directed the agency to release records about its lethal injection drugs.

Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Greg Abbott, said the office had 45 business days to reply.

Sells, 49, was convicted of killing a 13-year-old South Texas girl asleep at her home in 1999. Kaylene Harris was stabbed nearly two dozen times and had her throat slashed. A 10-year-old friend also was

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