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NPR investigation reveals information about death row in Texas

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Texas has executed more people than any other state over the past five years using a sedative called pentobarbital. How officials obtained that drug has been secret up to now. The state passed a law saying it does not have to disclose the source. Most major drug companies refuse to let states use their medicines to execute people. So where does it come from? NPR has learned the name of a pharmacy that made the lethal injection drugs for Texas and also found how it did it. Here's Chiara Eisner of NPR's investigations team.

CHIARA EISNER, BYLINE: Despite laws that allow the government to hide information about executions, clues do slip out. Documents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice indicated a compounding pharmacy in San Antonio called Rite-Away Pharmacy and Medical Supply provided pentobarbital to the state from early 2019 through at least late 2023. And in an interview with NPR, Rohit Chaudhary, who owns the pharmacy, confirmed it. But he downplayed his involvement and said one of his former pharmacists was the one who was mostly responsible.

ROHIT CHAUDHARY: I mean, I did conclude something like that was going on, but he was managing it himself, so...

EISNER: I called that pharmacist next and asked whether what Chaudhary said was true, that he had been in charge of making the pentobarbital for Texas when he worked there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That is a true statement, but it was never done without his full knowledge and consent.

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EISNER: NPR agreed to withhold the pharmacist's name because he said revealing that could have professional repercussions. Texas executed more than 20 people during the time that the documents show Rite-Away worked with the state. The pharmacist said it all started when a woman who worked for Texas reached out to him seven or more years ago and asked him to make the drugs at Rite-Away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: She said that she had approached a number of other places, and I think she may have just, you know, maybe been going down a list.

EISNER: This Rite-Away branch is a compounding pharmacy. That's a kind of pharmacy that makes drugs in-house from raw active ingredients instead of just ordering ready-made medication from other manufacturers, as most pharmacies do. Those compounding pharmacies receive less scrutiny. The FDA doesn't ensure their small batches of drugs are safe or effective before patients get them. But the process of creating drugs for lethal injection was even more secretive than usual here. The pharmacist said someone from the Department of Criminal Justice would hand deliver a supply of the active ingredient in powder form.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I don't remember any of them ever coming in a DOC vehicle. That would attract attention.

EISNER: It was his job to turn that powder into a drug that could be injected into people by mixing it with other ingredients in the pharmacy's sterile room.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Most of them we already had. I mean, it's not a complex formula. It's sterile water, propylene glycol, ethyl alcohol and pentobarbital.

EISNER: He did the work during normal business hours, but most of the staff had no idea what he was doing. Making and testing the drugs took a few weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Then they would pick up the finished product and take it back to Huntsville.

EISNER: Huntsville is where Texas executes its prisoners. The pharmacist said Rite-Away didn't make much money from the deal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It was probably in the very low five digits. It was not a big money maker at all. It was only about 2 or 300 a bottle, and we wouldn't do more than about 10 at a time. And I even had the guys from DOC saying, you know, you can charge more for this. No, not the way I do business, ma'am.

EISNER: He said he's against the death penalty, but he made peace with the work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I guess I satiated my guilt with the knowledge that, you know, whatever they did was deserving of capital punishment. And I'm not the one who decided that they would get that punishment. I was just the one that provided the means for it.

EISNER: Inspectors from the Texas State Board of Pharmacy found that Rite-Away violated more than a dozen rules over the past decade. Some of them related to preparing sterile drugs. The pharmacist who talked with NPR downplayed those violations and said they didn't affect the drugs he made for Texas. But another Chaudhary-owned pharmacy in San Antonio has had problems, too. Federal regulators sued that Rite-Away, alleging it, quote, "fueled and profited from the opioid epidemic for years." One person died from a fentanyl overdose shortly after the pharmacy gave her a high amount. Rite-Away agreed to pay a $275,000 penalty but denied liability.

BIANCA TYLEK: You know, if it's the case that people are overdosing on their drugs or they don't care about really the quality of the drugs, then, you know, who's to say they care about the quality of the lethal injection drug that they're handing out as well?

EISNER: Bianca Tylek is a lawyer and the executive director of a nonprofit that advocates against exploitation of prisoners. She considers the lack of transparency about the businesses that provide drugs to states for executions to be harmful, not just for prisoners but for the public. No matter what you think about the death penalty, she believes everyone should be able to know who their government is working with.

TYLEK: Compound pharmacies are stepping in where major pharmaceuticals have stepped out. And it's really concerning because they operate a bit underground.

EISNER: The Texas Department of Criminal Justice touts itself as an agency that follows the law, she said.

TYLEK: And yet they're literally relying on those who have been known to cause harm to carry out their death penalty, their execution. They are exhibiting a tremendous amount of carelessness that should never come into contact with the death penalty. Which naturally, if they cause them more harm, you know, should be violations of the Eighth Amendment under cruel and unusual punishment.

EISNER: Texas plans to execute a prisoner named Ruben Gutierrez with pentobarbital on July 16. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined an interview with me to talk about any of this. I emailed them to ask whether the state intends to use drugs from Rite-Away to stop Gutierrez's heart next week, but the Department of Criminal Justice declined to comment on that too.

Chiara Eisner, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Chiara Eisner
Chiara Eisner is a reporter for NPR's investigations team. Eisner came to NPR from The State in South Carolina, where her investigative reporting on the experiences of former execution workers received McClatchy's President's Award and her coverage of the biomedical horseshoe crab industry led to significant restrictions of the harvest.