Blantant News/FlickrLethal injection chamber
Sodium thiopental, the anesthetizing agent used in the nation’s three-drug lethal injection cocktail, is hard to come by these days.
Attorney General Jerry Brown recently disclosed that the state has enough for just four executions. Death penalty opponents want to know where it came from, but prison officials aren't saying, citing ongoing litigation over whether the state's method of executing death row inmates is cruel and unusual.
California's problem of finding enough of the lethal drug – seven inmates are nearing their execution dates – is being mirrored throughout the nation as other death penalty states look for the dwindling supply of the drug:
- Oklahoma was completely out until Arkansas shared some of their stock. Oklahoma subsequently put to death Donald Ray Wackerly, after two stays of execution, on Oct. 14. But with the shortage, the state is considering substituting the use of sodium thiopental with pentobarbital, commonly used to euthanize animals.
- Ohio says it has just enough of the drug for one more execution scheduled for Nov. 16. Officials have refused to say where they plan to get more or if they have considered looking overseas.
- Two executions in Kentucky were delayed because the state had one dose of thiopental sodium for the three murderers who have exhausted their appeals, the New York Times reported.
- Tennessee, which has also been looking for sodium thiopental, recently received a dose, according to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Officials have refused to say where they got the drug, but the UK Guardian reported that Tennessee was scheduled to receive a shipment from England a few weeks ago.
- In Arizona, state officials refused to tell a judge the origins of the state's supply of sodium thiopental or how it was obtained. Officials said it had come from England, the New York Times reported. The U.S. Supreme Court recently cleared the way for an execution there, rejecting last-minute appeals that argued the drug was not tested by the FDA and therefore couldn’t be guaranteed to work properly.
The idea that a UK-based manufacturer has been exporting a drug used in lethal injection has enraged death penalty opponents in England. The country doesn't allow capital punishment, and two groups recently launched a legal campaign to stop the exportation of the drug to the U.S.
Back in California, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel granted a stay of execution for convicted rapist-murderer Albert Greenwood Brown in September. It would have been the state’s first execution in almost five years.
Fogel extended the state’s de facto moratorium over concerns that if the initial barbiturate wasn’t effective, the second two drugs administered in the execution process could cause cruel and unusual punishment.
Fogel was concerned with the way the sodium thiopental was administered, although questions of quality have also been raised in the case. Currently, there’s only one place in the United States that makes the drug: Hospira, Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill.
According to news reports, the company's supply has or will soon exceed its expiration date, and it's having trouble finding the raw materials to make more.
Death penalty opponents say Californians have the right to know where San Quentin’s stash of sodium thiopental came from. Elisabeth Semel, a UC Berkeley law professor and director of the school's Death Penalty Clinic, told the LA Times:
If one is working with an FDA-approved drug, we know how it is supposed to be mixed and administered. If it comes from a foreign source, then we don't have that information, and the risk of serious harm escalates.
But not everyone is so concerned.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, says he’s comfortable with the standards for drugs in Europe. “It is absurd to claim that a drug used for the specific purpose of killing the inmate has to be approved through a process designed to ensure it is safe,” he said.
The state isn't willing to reveal where it obtained its supply of the drug, even if it's for something as serious as an execution. Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Corrections, said the litigation before Judge Fogel means that information will remain secret.