LETHAL INJECTION: Texas Switches to New Drug as Next Execution Approaches

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) announced on March 16 that it will switch to pentobarbital as part of its three-drug lethal injection protocol for the upcoming execution of Cleve Foster on April 5.  The short notice has drawn concerns from Foster's defense attorneys and lethal injection experts. Maurie Levin, a professor at the University of Texas who represents Foster, said, “Prison officials are not medical professionals. They cannot be trusted to change a medical procedure in the dark of night without public scrutiny, especially when there is such a minimal track record on the use of pentobarbital in lethal injections."  Prof. Deborah Denno of Fordham Law School, one of the nation’s leading experts on the lethal injection, said that the “Texas decision was not about making executions more humane but was meant to make the process more feasible.”  She also pointed to the fact that the problems with the earlier methods of lethal injection arose because one state blindly followed another, without careful review: "This lemming-effect has created a decades-long pattern of lethal injection botches in which department of corrections try to remain one step ahead of lawsuits."

As in Oklahoma, pentobarbital will take the place of sodium thiopental, which is no longer being manufactured in the United States. If the pentobarbital does not work correctly, the second and third drugs are extremely painful.  Michelle Lyons, spokesperson for TDCJ, said that the drug “has been upheld by the [Oklahoma] courts, so we're confident that it will also be upheld for use in Texas.”

(B. Grissom, "Texas Decides on Substitute Execution Drug," The Texas Tribune, March 16, 2011; Press Release from Maurie Levin, March 16, 2011).  See Lethal Injection.