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San Antonio pharmacy makes Texas' execution drug

An exhibit on lethal injection at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville
Jack Morgan/Texas Public Radio
An exhibit on lethal injection at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville

An anti-death penalty organization is calling for a full investigation into a San Antonio-based compounding pharmacy that supplies Texas with its execution drug.

An NPR investigation uncovered that Rite-Away Pharmacy and Medical Supplies, a San Antonio compounding pharmacy, produces supplies of injectable pentobarbital for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to use in executions.

The state of Texas bought drugs for lethal injections from the compounding pharmacy since major pharmaceutical companies refuse to participate in executions due to the resulting negative publicity and public pressure. However, the investigation from NPRshows that the Rite-Away Pharmacy and Medical Supply located in Thousand Oaks in San Antonio has been fined and sanctioned for violations.

The Texas Defender Service, a leading death penalty abolition organization, says there are many concerns since the compounding pharmacy has a history of more than a dozen safety and cleanliness violations.

Estelle Hebron-Jones is the special projects director for The Texas Defender Service. She said that “Texas is buying execution drugs, essentially a ‘pill mill.’ It’s a pharmacy chain that’s been sanctioned for selling opioids.”

Hebron-Jones said there are multiple red flags connected to how Texas obtains its execution drug, including that the state does not have a prescription for the controlled substance.

She said a full investigation into the operations at Rite-Away is needed to ensure it is complying with the law, licensing requirements and with accepted practices for compounding drugs.

Texas most recently used the purchased pentobarbital on June 26th during the execution of convicted murderer Ramiro Gonzales.

Texas Public Radio witnessed Gonzales’ execution and saw its lethal effects. The reporter saw that once the drugs began to flow into the Bandera County man’s arms, he took 6 to 8 loud deep breaths. He then emitted 6 to 8 snores and minutes later he was pronounced dead.

However, other Texas executions using the compounded pentobarbital reportedly have not been smooth. Witnesses at the 2018 Texas execution of William Rayford said that after he was injected with pentobarbital, he writhed and jerked on the gurney as he died. Larry Swearingen reportedly said he felt burning during his execution in 2019.

The unreliable results of compounding a pharmaceutical could be an explanation for varying effects on the condemned in Texas.

There is no indication that Texas will stop buying its execution drugs from Rite-Away.

Texas plans to execute prisoner Ruben Gutierrez with pentobarbital on July 16.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi