Arizona, Texas Found Illegally Importing Drug for Lethal Injection — As Many States Delay Executions

(Photo: Getty Images)

The latest potential blow to lethal injection as the de facto means of administering the death penalty in America? The findings, uncovered by BuzzFeed News, that both Arizona and Texas attempted to illegally import sodium thiopental from India for use in executions. The shipments were seized in the U.S. at the airport by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they could reach their intended destinations.

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice told BuzzFeed News on Thursday evening that the department is seeking to important sodium thiopental after having obtained a license from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to import drugs. The representative for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said that the source of the drugs ordered is confidential.

Sodium thiopental is an anesthetic that’s no longer used — or manufactured by FDA-approved companies —  in the United States, though it’s still in use in the developing world. Presumably, the states trying to import it intended to use it as the first drug — the sedative step — in their three-drug protocol for administering lethal injection. 

[The standard three drug protocol includes a sedative to first render the person unconscious, then, a paralytic to prevent movement and cease a person’s breathing, and finally, a drug to cause cardiac arrest.]

Earlier this year, Nebraska was also found to have been attempting to illegally import sodium thiopental for use in lethal injection executions.

Sodium thiopental used to be the drug of choice for the sedative step in the three drug cocktail. But the American manufacturer of sodium thiopental, Hospira, stopped producing the drug in 2011, stating that “Hospira manufactures this product because it improves or saves lives, and the company markets it solely for use as indicated on the product labeling. The drug is not indicated for capital punishment, and Hospira does not support its use in this procedure” — and manufacturers in Europe do not want to supply the drug to states if it will be used in executions.

So death penalty states have been left to scramble for drugs that can act as an sedative in its place. Some states have swapped in highly controversial drugs such as midazolam — the topic of a Supreme Court decision earlier this year —which is the drug behind a number of highly publicized botched executions, in which the sedative may have been ineffective and prisoners have flailed, panted, and screamed things like “I feel my whole body burning” as they died over periods as long as 40 minutes.

The seeming inability of states to follow their respective, regulated lethal injection protocols has been a topic of great discussion of late.

On Tuesday, Ohio announced it would be delaying executions the of 11 inmates scheduled to die next year until at least 2017, while prison officials try to secure supplies of lethal injection drugs. The Associated Press reports that Ohio has run out of supplies of its previous drugs and has unsuccessfully sought new amounts, including so-far failed attempts to import chemicals from overseas. Ohio obtained a federal import license to seek supplies overseas, but had been told by the FDA that such a move is illegal.

Earlier this month, an Arkansas judge halted the upcoming executions of eight death row inmates who are challenging a new law that allows the state to withhold any information that could publicly identify the manufacturers or sellers of its execution drugs.

Last month, the governor of Oklahoma granted a last-minute stay of execution for Richard Glossip, the man whose name appeared before the Supreme Court earlier this year in a case to determine the constitutionality of the use of the drug midazolam, after it was revealed that final drug of the state’s three drug protocol, potassium chloride — which is injected to stop the heart and cause death — had not been procured by the state. 

(Photo: Oklahoma Department of Corrections)

Rather, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections had obtained potassium acetate — a drug normally used to treat potassium deficiencies. The reason for this substitution is still unknown.

It later came out that Oklahoma had used potassium acetate — the wrong drug — to execute Charles Warner in January. The state’s execution protocol only allows the use of potassium chloride.

The morning following the issuance of Glossip’s stay of execution, the Oklahoma Attorney General asked that Glossip’s execution, as well as the other executions currently scheduled in Oklahoma, be suspended indefinitely so that his office could investigate how it was that the Oklahoma Department of Corrections obtained a drug outside of the authorized protocol. 

Earlier this year, the state of Florida temporarily suspended its planned executions while suits asserting the unconstitutionality of lethal injection — including the hearing of the Glossip case before the Supreme Court — work their way through the court system.

On Thursday, Florida inmate Wayne Doty, who has been on death row since 2011, asked that he be executed using the electric chair and not by lethal injection. A private investigator who once worked for the man told reporters that he thinks his former client is nervous about lethal injection — and its constitutionality — and wants to be put to death as quickly as possible.

In 2006, Jeb Bush, then the governor of Florida, also suspended executions in the state following the botched execution via lethal injection of Angel Nieves Diaz. 

The state medical examiner determined after Diaz’s death that the man’s veins had been punctured by prison officials administering his lethal injection, resulting in the drugs entering his body through his flesh as opposed to his bloodstream — a misstep that caused Diaz’s death to take twice the amount of time it should have.


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