State-Sanctioned Secrecy Shields Texas’ Death Penalty Machine from Scrutiny

New revelations about the source of Texas’ execution drugs underscore the risks of capital punishment shrouded in secrecy.

An inmate on Texas' death row.
An inmate on Texas' death row. Jen Reel

Shortly before he died by lethal injection earlier this year, Anthony Shore, Houston’s infamous “tourniquet killer,” exclaimed that he felt a burning sensation. Later that month, condemned killer William Rayford reportedly grimaced and writhed on the gurney during his final moments. Chris Young, executed this summer over the objections of his victim’s surviving son, was one of several death row inmates who said he could feel the drugs burning in his throat before he died.

On Wednesday, Buzzfeed News reported that Texas buys execution drugs from Greenpark Compounding Pharmacy in Houston, which state health officials have repeatedly cited for dangerous practices in recent years, including for giving kids the wrong medicine and forging quality control documents.

Joseph Garcia
Joseph Garcia  TDCJ

After the Buzzfeed report, lawyers for Joseph Garcia — set to die Tuesday for his role in a deadly 1999 prison escape — urged Governor Greg Abbott to give Garcia a 30-day reprieve, saying the revelation raises questions about the quality of Texas’ death drugs. Killing Garcia next week, his attorneys argue, subjects him to the “unreasonable risk of a cruel execution.”

Secrecy has always been a part of the American death penalty machine. Executioners donned hoods when the condemned were hanged in the public square, and by the 19th century, pressure from death penalty abolitionists had pushed officials to hold executions behind prison walls. In most of the 30 states that authorize the death penalty, the names and qualifications of anyone involved in administering the ultimate punishment are withheld from the public. Laws in some states even threaten to punish journalists who dig up and publish such information.

Many death penalty states, including Texas, began to shield the identity of execution drug suppliers over the past decade as large drug manufacturers distanced themselves from state-sanctioned killing. As their supply chain dried up, Texas officials turned to compounding pharmacies, which aren’t subject to the same strict federal standards as large drug companies, and began to restrict what information it publicly released about the drugs used in executions. In 2015, after it became clear these smaller pharmacies wouldn’t peddle execution drugs in public, the Texas Legislature passed a law shrouding them in secrecy.

As states veiled their shifting execution protocols and drug suppliers, reports of botched executions — such as prisoners who appeared to be suffocating or experiencing excruciating pain while strapped to a gurney — began to rise, according to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center released earlier this month. The report argues that secrecy prevents the public from having an honest conversation around the death penalty, while simultaneously undercutting inmates’ Eighth Amendment claims and increasing the risk of a painful execution.

“Secrecy is bad practice, bad policy and bad government,” said Robert Dunham, the group’s executive director. “It continues to erode public confidence in whether states can be trusted to carry out capital punishment.”

Until this week, Greenpark Pharmacy’s role in Texas’ death penalty machine was a closely guarded secret. Someone who answered the phone at the pharmacy on Friday refused to comment, as did a spokesperson for the Texas prison system.

The governor’s office hasn’t yet responded to Garcia’s lawyers’ request for a 30-day reprieve. Moving forward with his execution next week, they say, “creates a grave risk that he will be put to death in violation of his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.”

Michael Barajas is a staff writer covering civil rights for the Observer. You can reach him on Twitter or at [email protected].

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Published at 2:50 pm CST
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