TXPrison system appears to have bought $50,000 in execution
Fri Mar 30, 2012 16:56
Friday, March 30, 2012
Prison system appears to have bought $50,000 in execution drug last year
By Mike Ward | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
A year ago, facing a possible shortage of key drugs needed to keep the nation's busiest execution chamber in business, Texas prison officials appear to have purchased tens of thousands of dollars worth of the lethal drugs, new disclosures by state officials reveal.
While no detail is provided, records obtained by the American-Statesman hint that Texas could have enough of the drugs on hand to cover its executions for more than a year and perhaps the largest stockpile in the country — at a time when other states are scrambling to find suppliers for the same drugs.
The disclosure came this week, when the Texas Department of Criminal Justice filed paperwork seeking to keep secret all details of five purchases last May and June of "medical supplies" from Physician Sales & Service Inc.
Asked by the Statesman to make public details about those purchases made with taxpayer dollars, as the agency routinely does with other items it buys, prison officials appealed to Attorney General Greg Abbott to keep the information from public view.
"The requested copies of vouchers, invoices, purchase orders and other purchasing documents will reveal the identities of suppliers of the agency's lethal injection drugs," Patricia Fleming, an assistant general counsel for the prison system, wrote in a letter Tuesday to Abbott.
Although Fleming's letter seems to state that the purchases were lethal drugs, a spokesman for the prison agency disputed that.
"We've not identified what the medical supplies are listed on the invoices," prison spokesman Jason Clark said.
In seeking to keep the information secret, Fleming wrote that disclosure would allow death penalty opponents and others "to intimidate, harass and threaten the suppliers, forcing them to shut down production or blacklist correctional departments."
She also accused an "abolitionist coalition" including death penalty opponents, human-rights organizations, criminal defense attorneys and the media of engaging in a campaign to cut off the supply of execution drugs.
At least twice recently, drugmakers facing pressure from death penalty opponents stopped selling one of the three drugs used in lethal injections in the United States — or stopped making it altogether, the letter says.
According to public state purchasing records, the prison agency on May 4 paid for $22,928.76 worth of "medical supplies" from Physician Sales & Service.
The following day, the agency paid for three additional purchases totaling $24,839 from the same firm — for 39 vials of the execution drug Nembutal, according to a copy of the invoice for that purchase. The American-Statesman obtained a copy of that invoice from a complaint filed last year by attorneys for two death row inmates who asked the Texas Department of Public Safety to investigate the purchase.
On June 1, the agency paid for another $1,910.73 in "medical supplies" from the company, according to the records, which list no detail.
The nearly $50,000 in purchases are a tiny fraction of the agency's $3 billion budget and comparable to the $19,000 a year it costs taxpayers to incarcerate a prisoner. And while the price of execution drugs has increased 15-fold over the past year, death penalty supporters and crime victims groups say the cost is well worth it to ensure public safety.
The purchases could presumably include other commonly used medical items such as syringes, gloves, saline solution and other items used in executions — although such items are unlikely to cost tens of thousands of dollars. Furthermore, the agency did not disclose redacted versions of the invoices — as most agencies, including the prison system, usually do in responding to public records requests when they want to keep some details secret.
State records reviewed by the American-Statesman show the purchases during 2011 were the only ones the agency has made in recent years from Physician Sales & Service, at a Houston address.
The company, headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., did not return calls for comment. On its website, it bills itself as "the country's largest supplier of medical products to physician practices."
The prison system buys its execution drugs directly, not through its separate medical providers as other states have done, documents previously made public have shown.
Regardless of how much stock the agency has on hand, Clark said "the agency has no plans to sell drugs to other states" — as some other states have done.
In her letter to Abbott, Fleming blasted "international anti-death penalty proponents whose conviction is that state-sanctioned killing of convicted murderers in Texas is immoral and the members of the media whose editorial opposition to capital punishment is virtually universal and equally devout."
It accused groups such as Reprieve, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of harassment and intimidation of state corrections agencies such as Texas' prison system from being able to buy the lethal drugs.
London-based Reprieve is singled out for the harshest criticism. Fleming compares it to a violent prison gang.
The group's methods "present classic, hallmark practices comparable to practices by gangs incarcerated in the TDCJ who intimidate and coerce rival gang members and which have erupted into prison riots," Fleming wrote.
"It is not a question of if but when Reprieve's unrestrained harassment will escalate into violence against a supplier" of the lethal drugs, the letter says.
Maya Foa, a London-based investigator for Reprieve who was criticized by name in Fleming's filing, said the drug companies "objected to the misuse of their products well before they met Reprieve. ... These companies' ethics and actions are very much their own."
Maurie Levin, a University of Texas adjunct law professor who has represented several execution-bound criminals in their final appeals, called the secrecy request by prison officials "absurd." She was criticized in Fleming's letter as being in cahoots with Reprieve and death penalty opponents at the time she represented Texas convict Cleve Foster, who was executed.
"The public is entitled to know how the state is complying with the law when they are carrying out the ultimate punishment," Levin said. "Texas is one of the most secretive."
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