Blog of Rights

How Much Sodium Thiopental Does Texas Have?

By Suzanne Ito, ACLU at 2:56pm

That's what the Associated Press, Austin-American Statesman and the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, want to know. Earlier this year, they filed public information act requests to the state of Texas seeking this and other information regarding the state's supply of the drug.

Sodium thiopental is a general anesthetic often used by doctors for surgery patients. The drug is also part of the three-drug cocktail many death penalty states use to execute condemned inmates.

Since this spring, there's been a nationwide shortage of the drug. Most notoriously, the State of California's supply expired days after its scheduled execution of Albert Brown. (The execution was stayed.) The drug shortage has left a few death penalty states, like California and Arizona, scrambling for the drug so it can continue executing prisoners on schedule.

Other states, like Texas and Arkansas, have plenty of sodium thiopental on hand, and are hoarding it, possibly at the expense of surgery patients whose doctors are resorting to lesser known drugs for pre-surgery anesthetization. The shortage has led to keen interest in the quantity of the drug states like Texas have on-hand.

But while plenty are asking Texas questions about its sodium thiopental supply, Texas isn't telling.

In a letter to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott regarding U.C. Berkeley's public information act request, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) claims releasing information about the state's sodium thiopental supply could trigger violent protests by anti-death penalty activists. TDCJ officials compare death penalty protestors who stage candlelight vigils outside the death chamber in Huntsville to anti-abortionists who have murdered doctors who perform abortions:

The ideological rift between proponents and opponents of the death penalty is deep and entrenched. It is an intense cultural war similar to that between the pro-life and pro-choice camps in which the debate has escalated from letters-to-the-editor to the picketing of abortion clinics to the bombing of those clinics and the stalking and murder of abortionists.
But there has not been a single instance of an anti-death penalty activist stalking/murdering an executioner. The comparison is ludicrous and outrageous, and clearly demonstrates how the state of Texas is grasping at straws to keep information about its sodium thiopental supply a secret.

On Monday, the ACLU of Texas and the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project sent a letter to Attorney General Abbott — who will make the final decision whether to release the information — outlining exactly why he should deny state officials' request to suppress this information. Our letter points out exactly why the state's claimed exemptions do not apply to these public information requests.

Secrets are impermissible when unnecessary pain and suffering is at stake. Just last night, Arizona executed Jeffrey Landrigan with sodium thiopental imported from the U.K. Sodium thiopental sourced from Britain is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the U.S., creating the possibility of unconstitutional pain and suffering should the drug not work in the same manner as FDA-approved sodium thiopental.

So how much sodium thiopental does Texas have? Everyone — not just Texans — has the right to know. When states go to these lengths to conceal information about how they execute prisoners, it's clear the capital punishment system is irreparably broken and should be abolished.

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