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Before his execution, Texas man questioned safety of lethal drug

A Texas man on death row tried to delay his execution by filing a lawsuit that sought more information about a lethal drug that would be used in his execution.
The gurney in the death chamber in Huntsville, Texas.
The gurney in the death chamber in Huntsville, Texas.

"Punch the button," Michael Yowell told the Texas warden Wednesday evening. Nineteen minutes later, Yowell was pronounced dead at 7:11 pm CT.

The 43-year-old man of Lubbock, TX, tried to delay his execution by filing a lawsuit with two other condemned inmates that sought more information about the lethal drugs that would be used in their executions. The lawsuit challenged the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's recent purchase of pentobarbital from a "compounding pharmacy" in Texas that initially wished to remain anonymous.

The prisoners' letters launched a media frenzy over capital punishment, compelling the pharmacy to ask for the drugs back. Texas prison officials refused to return the drugs as they "were purchased legally by the agency," according to department spokesman Jason Clark who issued a statement Monday. "TDCJ has no intention of returning the pentobarbital."

"We were up-front with the vendor that the name of their company and the items purchased would be subject to disclosure thorough open records requests," Clark said.

Death penalty states, including Texas, have turned to compounding pharmacies to replenish their lethal injection inventories after major pharmaceutical companies have said they do not want their drugs used for executions. The three prisoners argued the lethal sedative would cause further pain and suffering since the drug was manufactured by a compounding pharmacy where pharmaceutical products are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Opponents of capital punishment have harshly criticized these compounding pharmacies for providing drugs that are not placed under federal guidelines and are potentially unsafe. In the past, local pharmaceutical companies were implicated for providing contaminated drugs with fatal side effects.

The lawsuit hoped to delay the execution to confirm "the integrity and legality" of the injection, according to the lawsuit. The lawyers argued that the drug is "a dramatic change from prior practice—making the need for oversight, now and in the future—that much more important," according to an AP report.

After lower federal courts ruled that pentobarbital was safe to use for executions, the inmates appealed their case to the Supreme Court, who ultimately rejected the prisoners' appeal.

Yowell is the 14th man to be executed this year in Texas, which implements the death penalty more than any other state in the country.

Yowell, who was already on probation for burglary and drug convictions, was charged with murdering his parents on Mother's Day weekend in 1998 and setting his home on fire, which injured his grandmother who later died of injuries from the fire explosion. A medical autopsy later showed that his mother had been strangled with a lamp cord before the blast, and that his father was shot in the head.

A new study by the Death Penalty Information Center finds that just 2% of all counties in the United States are responsible for convicting and executing most of the prisoners on death row since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Ten of the top 15 counties that convict people of the death penalty and carry out the executions are in Texas. Harris County, which includes Houston, is number one on that list, and Dallas County is number two.

Since 1976, Texas has executed 502 convicts. While Los Angeles County, Calif. has the most people on death row, California has put 13 to death.