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Texas is about to run out of lethal injection drugs

A guard near the wall of the prison unit in Huntsville, Texas, last year. (Richard Carson/Reuters)

On Wednesday evening, the state of Texas plans to execute Manuel Vasquez, who was convicted of strangling a woman named Juanita Ybarra in 1998. A week later, the state is planning on executing Randall Mays, who was convicted of shooting and killing two sheriff’s deputies and wounding another police officer.

Over the next two months, Texas, the country’s most active death penalty state, also has five other executions on the calendar. All of the inmates involved were convicted of murder; one of them was sentenced to death for beating a 4-year-old girl to death. All of these executions are set to take place at the state prison in Huntsville using a fatal dose of lethal injection drugs.

And Texas, which has carried out more executions than any other state in the country — and has, in the modern era, carried out more executions than the next six states combined — is about to run out of lethal injection drugs. The state has enough drugs to get it through next week, which would only cover two of the seven executions currently scheduled. The situation there speaks to what has been an ongoing problem facing states with capital punishment in recent years, as a shortage of lethal injection drugs has forced officials to scramble for new methods and drug combinations, an issue that will ultimately make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court next month.

[Read: Letter from key witness casts further doubt on 2004 Texas execution]

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which carries out executions in the state, confirmed Tuesday that the state will run out of drugs after Vasquez and Mays are put to death. Lethal injections in Texas are carried out using a fatal dose of pentobarbital, a barbiturate that has been used in the majority of the country’s executions since 2011.

Authorities in Texas are still hoping to carry out the five executions scheduled for April and May, but it is unclear if the state will be able to get additional pentobarbital, find any other drugs or simply postpone the lethal injections altogether.

“We are trying to obtain the drugs,” Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “And our goal would be to carry out those executions.”

Texas, the first state in the country to carry out a lethal injection, used to execute inmates with a three-drug combination that was commonly used across the country. These lethal injections were carried out using an anesthetic, a paralytic drug and a drug that stopped the heart — a drug combination that states used until they began having problems obtaining the drugs involved.

At the beginning of this decade, European companies and officials objected to the use of drugs supplied by European companies in American executions, which set off a scramble as states stopped having access to the drugs they had previously used. States altered their protocols and altered them again. Some turned to compounding pharmacies and shrouded the entire process in secrecy, while others debated bringing back methods like the firing squad or gas chamber.

Since 2012, authorities in Texas have relied upon a dose of pentobarbital to carry out its executions. While there have been close calls before as the state used up most of its lethal injection drugs, Clark said he was not aware of any times an execution in Texas had to be postponed due to a lack of drugs.

“There have been other instances where we have been running low and obtained additional drugs,” he said.

Clark said the department would not answer why the state is unable to obtain additional pentobarbital from the same source it used previously, nor would he say whether Texas has asked other states for their drugs.

“We’re just not going to get into specifics about where we purchased the drugs or anything beyond that,” he said. He cited a lawsuit that has been filed against the Department of Criminal Justice in order to force it to reveal the name of the compounding pharmacy that has supplied its lethal injection drugs.

In the meantime, if Texas carries out its next two scheduled executions, it will run out of lethal injection drugs three weeks before a planned April 4 lethal injection. The state could delay executions, or it could turn to another drug, Clark said.

“We’re exploring all options, including the continued use of pentobarbital or alternate drugs in the lethal injection process,” he said. If they are unable to get pentobarbital but can obtain a different drug, William Stephens, director of the state’s Correctional Institutions Division, would be able to alter the protocol as an administrative change, Clark said.

The struggle in Texas is particularly noteworthy because of the state involved, but it does also highlight broader problems with lethal injection drugs that are playing out in different ways in various states. Last week, Georgia said it was postponing executions indefinitely while officials there analyze “cloudy” drugs that were almost used in a lethal injection. An execution in Pennsylvania was called off last year by the governor because the state didn’t have the lethal injection drugs needed, while his successor suspended the death penalty there earlier this year.

Authorities in Ohio postponed every execution scheduled for this year, a decision that came after officials there announced plans to stop using the drug midazolam, which was used in three executions that went awry last year. Ohio had only adopted midazolam because of the drug shortage.

Similarly, Oklahoma turned to the drug midazolam due to this shortage. The first time the state used the drug, it bungled the execution of Clayton Lockett, who kicked and grimaced and ultimately died after 43 minutes. This drug and Oklahoma’s protocol are now at the center of a case the Supreme Court will hear next month, something the court agreed to take up after Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent questioning the use of midazolam in Oklahoma’s lethal injections. This is the first time the court is considering lethal injection since 2008, when the justices upheld the three-drug combination that states have been forced to discard.

Until the Supreme Court rules, upcoming executions in Oklahoma and Florida — which uses the same drugs — have been put on hold. But other states have declined to stop their executions, and the Supreme Court has not intervened. (It takes four justices to accept a case, but five to stay an execution.)

Robert C. Hurst, another spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said that the state did “not intend to delay executions” due to the Supreme Court’s looming decision, pointing to the state’s use of pentobarbital in 39 executions since 2012 “without complication.” (An execution set for last month in Texas was halted by the justices as they consider whether to hear the case of the inmate, who argued that it was unconstitutional to execute him after he was on death row for more than 30 years.)

Vasquez’s execution is scheduled for Wednesday after 6 p.m. If it is carried out, he will be the ninth person executed in the United States this year and the fourth inmate put to death in Texas.


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Supreme Court stays execution of Texas inmate on death row for 30 years

Texas carries out its first execution of the year