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

December 7, 2010 | 12:38 pm


Corrections officials told a federal judge Tuesday that they have imported enough sodium thiopental from Arizona and Britain to execute 175 death row prisoners.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation last month purchased 521 grams of the drug from Archimedes Pharma for $36,415, said department 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.

The source of the execution drug was disclosed in a report to U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose after the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California made a public records request and a San Francisco judge gave corrections officials until Tuesday to explain where it got the drug 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. Fogel is expected to rule early next year.

The sodium thiopental bought from the British manufacturer is currently being stored at an East Coast site pending testing and approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said Thornton.

It 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, with 713 condemned prisoners.


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Photo. Credit: Los Angeles Times

[Updated at 4:39 p.m. Correction: An earlier story about the state’s acquisition of 537 grams of sodium thiopental said that quantity was sufficient to execute 175 condemned prisoners. Newly revised lethal-injection procedures require the state to have a backup supply of each drug loaded and ready for use at each execution, which would expend twice the necessary amount of the drug per execution. The new rules also require that an unspecified quantity be used for training purposes.]