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State's lethal-injection drugs were imported from Britain, corrections officials disclose

December 7, 2010 |  5:40 pm

Corrections officials disclosed Tuesday that they had imported from Britain a large quantity of the key drug used in lethal-injection executions and are awaiting approval of the foreign-made product by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation last month paid a British distributor $36,415 for 521 grams of sodium thiopental made by Archimedes Pharma, said corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton.

Prison officials also acquired 12 grams of the drug at no cost from the Arizona Department of Corrections on Sept. 30, Thornton said.

That stock of the first drug used in a three-injection execution sequence would be enough to put 175 condemned prisoners to death.

But state procedures require the San Quentin State Prison execution team to prepare a backup tray of syringes for each execution and to expend an unspecified quantity of the drug for training purposes, Thornton noted, substantially reducing the potential impact of the new supply.

The acquisitions were reported to U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose at the time they were made but the source of the drug was disclosed only after the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a public records request.

A San Francisco judge had given corrections officials until Tuesay to explain where it got the drug, which is no longer available from the sole U.S. manufacturer.

Sodium thiopental is a powerful barbiturate used to anesthetize condemned prisoners as the first step in lethal-injection executions. California revised its execution regime after Fogel ruled in 2006 that the previous methods posed a risk of exposing prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Constitution.

After halting the execution of convicted killer Michael A. Morales in February 2006, Fogel heard testimony suggesting some of the 11 men executed by lethal injection in California since capital punishment was restored in 1976 had not been fully unconscious after the sodium thiopental was injected. That would have left them paralyzed by the second injection and unable to express the intense pain said to accompany the final shot that causes cardiac arrest.

Executions have been on hold in California pending Fogel’s review of whether the revised procedures meet constitutional standards. He is expected to rule early next year.

The sodium thiopental made by Archimedes Pharma was shipped ahead of Britain’s decision late last month to bar exports of the drug, which is also used in surgery and to euthanize animals.

All European nations have renounced capital punishment, and Britain came under fire for making the drug available to U.S. states for executions.

California has the nation’s largest death row population, with 713 condemned prisoners.


California now has enough drugs to execute 175 death row inmates [Updated]

-- Carol J. Williams