Judge halts Texas executions over drug origins

A federal judge postponed the Texas executions of two convicted murderers Wednesday, ordering authorities to provide more information about the origin of drugs to be used in their lethal injections.

Judge Vanessa Gilmore issued an injunction delaying the execution of Tommy Sells, who was due to die on Thursday, and Mexican national Ramiro Hernandez, scheduled to die on April 9.

Sells was convicted of kidnapping a young girl and Hernandez of killing his boss and raping that man's wife.

Gilmore agreed to a request made by lawyers for the condemned men seeking to establish the "source, nature and efficacy" of the compounded pentobarbital due to be used in the executions.

Without further information, lawyers for the men were "unable to show a potential constitutional violation regarding the intended means of execution," Gilmore said.

US states using the death penalty have faced crisis over shortages of lethal injection drugs after European suppliers stopped supplying pentobarbital for use in human executions.

The shortage has prompted many US states to turn to unregulated compounding pharmacies to supply the drugs instead.

However, lawyers for many prisoners have said the compounded drugs can cause excruciating pain, putting executions using them in violation of the US Constitution, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

Texas authorities said the substances to be used in the executions had been tested and were found to be free of contaminants.

However Gilmore criticized a delay in making the test results -- which had been known on March 20 -- available "until just two days before the first scheduled execution.

"It has masked information about the product that will kill them," Gilmore said.

"The State's secrecy regarding the product to be used for lethal injection has precluded plaintiffs from evaluating or challenging the constitutionality of the method of execution."

Gilmore stayed the executions until all information about the drugs was made available to the condemned prisoners' attorneys.

Maurie Levin and Jonathan Ross, representing the two men, welcomed the court ruling.

"We hope that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will finally decide to comply with the law, and cease attempting to shroud in secrecy one aspect of their job that, above all others, should be conducted in the light of day," the attorneys said.

The lawyers' statement accused Texas authorities of seeking to "manipulate the system" and "evade accountability."