Drug shortage stirs death penalty debate in U.S. and beyond
Scripps Howard News Service
A shortage of one of the three drugs used in lethal injection executions has set off legal battles nationwide as states search for ways to put condemned inmates to death.
In the past week, courts in California, Arizona and Oklahoma have weighed in on the dispute, as has the government of Great Britain, where some states have sought supplies of the scarce drug -- sodium thiopental.
California corrections officials have been ordered by a San Francisco Superior Court judge to release records by Tuesday that might show where they obtained a recently purchased supply of the drug.
"We want to know where they are buying this stuff, for how much, and what process they are using to acquire it," said Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which sued to force release of the information.
Minsker said it was illegal to import the drug from outside the United States because any such supply would lack approval of the Food and Drug Administration. "This is a federal controlled substance."
The ACLU sued after the state failed to produce any information in response to a California Public Records Act request on Oct. 7.
Corrections officials had no comment last week.
The ACLU and other death penalty opponents have seized upon the shortages in efforts nationwide to halt executions, arguing that states must follow strict protocols to execute inmates.
By using drugs from foreign sources, attorneys argued in a pending Arizona case, "there is a substantial, constitutionally unacceptable risk that the drug itself could cause pain and suffering to the plaintiff if it is contaminated, compromised or substandard."
Arizona recently executed an inmate using the drug from a British manufacturer, putting condemned inmate Jeffrey Landrigan to death on Oct. 26 at the state prison in Florence. But with legal fights looming over the use of an imported chemical, the Arizona Supreme Court agreed to delay issuing a death warrant for another convicted killer, Daniel Wayne Cook, until at least Dec. 30.
The drug, described in court papers as "an ultra-fast-acting barbiturate," is the first of three administered in lethal injections. Its shortage helped derail California's planned execution of convicted killer Albert Greenwood Brown, scheduled to die Sept. 30 in San Quentin.
That same day, according to court papers, the state acquired 12 grams of sodium thiopental. An additional 521 grams, enough to execute 86 inmates, was scheduled to be delivered last week. Both batches expire in 2014, the papers state.
The drug renders an inmate unconscious, to be followed by a second chemical that paralyzes the inmate and a third that stops the heart.
The use of sodium thiopental is crucial to court-approved lethal injection procedures because it is deemed adequate to ensure that the inmate is unconscious and feels no subsequent pain.
Executions have been stymied because the only U.S. maker of the drug, Hospira Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill., made its last batch in 2009 and has said it will not make any more before early next year. The company is having trouble acquiring the active pharmaceutical ingredient.
Hospira has said it opposes use of the drug for executions and has made its stance known to all 36 states using it for that purpose. The firm maintains that the drug is designed as a surgical anesthetic. Distributors that purchase it from Hospira are free to provide it to prison officials.
Some states, such as Texas, have said they have enough supplies to carry out scheduled executions.
Others, like Arizona, quietly obtained fresh supplies from Britain. These are unlawful, the ACLU says, because they lack Food and Drug Administration approval.
When Tennessee officials sought supplies of the drug for the scheduled execution of Edmund Zagorski on Jan. 11, an international outcry arose. Britain, like much of the rest of Europe, has no capital punishment. Zagorski's lawyers contacted the British human rights group Reprieve, which pursued legal action to stop the drug's export.
On Nov. 29, the British government agreed to impose tight controls on its export. That same day, the Tennessee Supreme Court postponed the planned execution of Zagorski, a double murderer, and three other inmates because of concerns over the state's lethal injection procedures.
Oklahoma officials seeking to execute convicted killer John David Duty on Dec. 16 won a recent court ruling allowing them to substitute pentobarbital, which is used in animal euthanasia, for sodium thiopental.
(Contact Sam Stanton at sstanton(at)sacbee.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)