The Austin Chronicle

Death Watch: A First Time for Everything

Execution date withdrawn after state fails to retest lethal drugs

By Chase Hoffberger, July 15, 2016, News

Texas death row inmate Perry Williams saw his Thursday (July 14) execution date withdrawn last Wednesday, delaying his state-administered death indefinitely. A Harris County judge ordered the delay after the Texas Department of Criminal Justice failed to procure test results to determine the purity of the dose of compounded pentobarbital (the state's execution drug of choice) reserved for Williams' execution. State spokesperson Jason Clark declined to elaborate on whether that failure was the result of an independent lab's delay, or if TDCJ handlers simply failed to send the dosage to the unnamed lab on time.

Williams, sentenced to death for the 2000 murder of Matthew Carter, originally filed a joint lawsuit with inmates Thomas Whitaker and Michael Yowell in 2013, that questioned the purity of TDCJ's then-current stock of pentobarbital, which TDCJ planned to begin using after its previous supply of Nembutal (a brand name for pentobarbital) expired. The case was dismissed for Whitaker and Williams, because neither had been issued execution warrants at the time. Yowell, scheduled for execution that week, still went to the chamber, and was executed with the first known dosage of pentobarbital not made by a drug manufacturer but by a compounding pharmacy. In 2015, the Attorney General's Office agreed to retest Whitaker and Williams' doses shortly before their executions. Williams, 35, received his execution warrant in January 2016.

This is the first time an execution has been delayed because the state wasn't able to procure test results on a drug dosage. Williams' attorney Maurie Levin told the Chronicle that the state's contention that it didn't have enough time to send out for test results is "suspect at best." She said the agreement to do the testing occurred "months and months ago" and could have been considered imminent since 2013. "That the state didn't have time is hogwash," she asserted. She questioned how the state is "possibly allowed to do such things when operating under such secrecy."

TDCJ is not alone in its troubles procuring aboveboard pentobarbital in recent years, as manufacturers have increasingly balked at the idea of their drugs being used for executions. The state switched to a single-drug protocol in 2011, around the same time that Lundbeck, a Danish manufacturer of pentobarbital, began outlawing its sale to American pharmacies. Since, Texas has scrambled to procure dosage amounts from various licensed pharmacies with the capability to compound the three-drug cocktail, sometimes trading with other states. Procurement became more difficult in May, when Pfizer, the last remaining FDA-approved manufacturer of execution drugs, imposed a set of controls to prevent states from acquiring those drugs.

Clark did not comment on any future testings. Five inmates are currently on the state's execution schedule, beginning with Ramiro Gonzales Aug. 10.

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