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Judge halts Texas executions over drug supplier information

The death chamber is seen through the steel bars from the viewing room at the federal penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas in this September 29
The death chamber is seen through the steel bars from the viewing room at the federal penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas in this September 29

By Jon Herskovitz and Heide Brandes

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge has temporarily suspended the execution of two inmates planned for this month in Texas, saying the state has hidden information about the supplier of the drugs to be used in the lethal injections.

The decision is part of a series of recent court rulings that have mandated states to release information about drugs used for lethal injection, saying that keeping the information secret violates due process protections of the U.S. Constitution.

"While the state has provided plaintiffs information about the process by which they will be executed, it has masked information about the product that will kill them," U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore wrote in Houston in a temporary injunction issued on Wednesday.

Gilmore called on the state to disclose, under seal, information regarding its execution drug.

Several states have struggled to obtain drugs for executions, while many pharmaceutical companies, mostly in Europe, have imposed sales bans because they object to having medications made for other purposes used in lethal injections.

The injunction applies to inmates Tommy Lynn Sells, set to be executed on Thursday for the murder of a 13-year-old girl, and Ramiro Hernandez whose execution was set for April 9 for a rape and murder that took place in 1997.

Texas, which has executed more prisoners than any other state since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, said last month it had obtained a new batch of the sedative pentobarbital, without saying where the drug it uses for executions had come from.

A Texas state judge ordered the department of corrections on March 27 to disclose the name of the supplier of drugs used in executions.

Texas prison officials have so far refused, saying they want the supplier to remain secret to protect it from possible harm. That prompted lawyers for the two inmates to take the case to federal court.

Texas immediately appealed Wednesday's federal injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which last week ruled that Louisiana had to reveal to inmates on death row the content and maker of drugs used in lethal injections.

In neighboring Oklahoma, attorneys for two men scheduled to be put to death this month will request a stay of execution, arguing that the state is not abiding by a court ruling compelling it to provide information about lethal injection drugs.

The lawyers will raise objections to a hastily acquired batch of chemicals Oklahoma said it obtained this week for the execution of inmates Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner.

"The new protocol raises grave concerns about its safety and efficacy," said Oklahoma attorney Madeline Cohen.

An Oklahoma judge ruled last month that the state's execution procedures were unconstitutional because it did not provide to inmates the name of the drug supplier, the combination of chemicals and the dosages used in executions.

"The lawsuit involved the confidentiality statute in Oklahoma, not about the drugs themselves," Diane Clay, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma attorney general, wrote in an email.

(Additional reporting by David Bailey in Minneappolis and Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City; editing by Gunna Dickson)

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