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Death Row Inmates Sue FDA Over Execution Drug from Overseas

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February 3, 2011

Yesterday, six inmates from death rows in California, Arizona and Tennessee sued the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Health and Human Services for allowing those states to import non-FDA-approved sodium thiopental from foreign suppliers to carry out executions.

Sodium thiopental is a general anesthetic sometimes used by doctors for surgery patients. The drug is also part of the three-drug cocktail many death penalty states use to execute condemned inmates. The only FDA-approved manufacturer is Illinois-based Hospira, which announced last month that it will cease manufacturing the drug.

A press release announcing the lawsuit stated:

Because unapproved sodium thiopental has not been shown to work as intended, using it in executions creates unacceptable risks that prisoners will not be properly anesthetized before the other drugs used in lethal injection protocols stop the prisoners’ breathing and induce cardiac arrest. “Whatever one’s views may be on the death penalty, no reasonable person is in favor of botched or inhumane executions,” [Attorney Bradford] Berenson said. “Ineffective anesthesia that subjects condemned prisoners to needless, and indeed unconstitutional, suffering serves no one’s interests, least of all the states’.”

We’ve been covering the sodium thiopental shortage since last September, when the nation learned of the State of California’s last-minute maneuverings to secure enough of the drug to execute Albert Brown. After that state magically secured a new supply despite the shortage, the ACLU of Northern California filed a Public Records Act request (PDF) in October seeking records revealing the source of the drug. A lawsuit to enforce that request followed; the released documents reveal the state’s frantic search for the drug, and that it finally secured a new supply from a pharmaceutical company in the U.K.

Last October, Arizona executed Jeffrey Landrigan using sodium thiopental imported from the U.K.

Yesterday’s lawsuit and the sodium thiopental shortage in general have revealed some states’ true colors: While California went through a $4 million rollercoaster ride in an attempt to execute Albert Brown and convinced the FDA to break its own rules to secure enough of the death drug, a bill repealing the death penalty in Illinois sits on Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk awaiting signature. We hope these two states will compel other death penalty states to re-examine their use of capital punishment.

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