HUNTSVILLE, Texas — A serial killer was put to death Thursday in Texas after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his lawyers’ demand that the state release information about where it gets its lethal injection drug.
Tommy Lynn Sells, 49, was the first inmate to be injected with a dose of newly replenished pentobarbital that Texas prison officials obtained to replace an expired supply of the powerful sedative.
Sells declined to give a statement. As the drug began flowing into his arms inside the death chamber in Huntsville, Sells took a few breaths, his eyes closed and he began to snore. After less than a minute, he stopped moving. He was pronounced dead at 6:27 p.m. CDT — 13 minutes after being given the pentobarbital.
Terry Harris, whose 13-year-old daughter, Kaylene Harris, was fatally stabbed by Sells in 1999 in South Texas, watched as Sells was executed, saying the injection was “way more gentle than what he gave out.”
“What a great day!” the father said as witnesses turned to leave the death house.
Sells’ lawyers had made a plea to the Supreme Court earlier in the day after a federal appeals court on Wednesday allowed the execution to remain on schedule. A lower court had stopped the execution Wednesday, ordering the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to reveal more information about its drug supplier, but the ruling was quickly tossed on appeal.
Sells, who claims to have committed as many as 70 killings across the U.S., also lost an appeal before the high court that contended his case should be reviewed because he had poor legal help during his murder trial.
In their drug argument, Sells’ attorneys argued they needed to know the name of the pharmacy now providing the state with pentobarbital used during executions in order to verify the drug’s quality and protect Sells from unconstitutional pain and suffering.
But the Supreme Court, like the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, sided with Texas prison officials, who argued that information about the drug supplier must be kept secret to protect the pharmacy from threats of violence. The high court justices did not elaborate on why they made the decision, which came about an hour before Sells’ scheduled execution.
State attorneys argued the new pentobarbital stock falls within the acceptable ranges of potency. Sells’ attorneys said they had no way of confirming that.
The Supreme Court last month rejected similar arguments from a Missouri inmate’s attorneys who challenged the secrecy surrounding where that state obtained its execution drugs, and the condemned prisoner was put to death.
Questions about the source of execution drugs have arisen in several states in recent months as numerous drugmakers — particularly in Europe, where opposition to capital punishment is strongest — have refused to sell their products if they will be used in executions.
That’s led several state prison systems to compounding pharmacies, which are not as heavily regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as more conventional pharmacies.
A batch of pentobarbital that Texas purchased from a compounding pharmacy in suburban Houston expired at the end of March. The pharmacy refused to sell the state any more drugs, citing threats it received after its name was made public.
Texas found a new, undisclosed supplier.
The court case challenging the state’s stance also included 44-year-old Ramiro Hernandez-Llanas, who is scheduled for execution next week. But the 5th Circuit ruling affected only Sells.
Sells’ execution was the fifth lethal injection this year in Texas, the nation’s busiest state for the death penalty.
A jury convicted him of capital murder in 2000 for the stabbing death of Kaylene Harris and slashing of her 10-year-old friend, Krystal Surles, who survived and helped police find Sells. The girls were attacked on New Year’s Eve 1999 as they slept in Harris’ home in Del Rio, about 150 miles west of San Antonio.