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"I've Got a Secret Mission for You."

Natasha Minsker,
ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy
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December 9, 2010

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR) finally released 989 pages of heavily redacted records to the ACLU of Northern California revealing how it acquired one of the drugs needed for executions. The documents literally mention a “secret mission” to get the drugs. They show the expense and incredible lengths California government officials were willing go to in order to carry out executions — and to keep it all secret.

The ACLU believes that it is crucial for us to have full transparency and accountability in government, especially when it comes to executions. These documents dramatically highlight some of the reasons that is so, and clearly show that taxpayer money, not to mention hundreds of hours of public employee time, were no object to acquiring these drugs.

Back in September, California Attorney General Jerry Brown suddenly hurried to carry out an execution, after a nearly five-year hiatus. Judges, reporters and the public all asked themselves “What’s the rush?” Then we found out: the state’s supply of one of the critical execution drugs, sodium thiopental, was about to expire on October 1. After a week-long legal rollercoaster, California courts ruled that the expiration date of pharmaceuticals was not a good enough reason to cut short judicial review in a death penalty case. The execution was halted.

Then, just days later, the CDCR announced it had a new stash of the drug, despite a nationwide shortage. The ACLU of Northern California immediately began asking questions, submitting a Public Records Act request (PDF) to find out how the CDCR got these drugs, how much it paid, and who was involved. For two months, CDCR officials did everything they could to hide the truth. So we filed suit on November 17, to enforce the public record request.

Still, the CDCR would not turn over records on its bizarre shopping spree until a California Superior Court ordered the CDCR to give up the records by December 7, 2010.

Some lowlights from the just-released documents include:

  • One CDCR official telling agents he has a “secret mission” for them — to go to Arizona and pick up the drug from prison officials there. Arizona officials agreed to “give” sodium thiopental to California only after California provided them with pancuronium bromide, another drug used in executions.
  • A failed global search for the drugs: California officials asked the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for special permission to import the drugs from Pakistan. The DEA refused, though we don’t know why since their response is not included in the disclosed records.
  • State officials also reached out to nearly a hundred California hospitals and community clinics looking for the drug. They paid $65 for a list of community clinics so they could continue the search. None gave the department the drug.
  • The CDCR had a hard time even finding a doctor willing to help them order the drugs. Because this is a lethal controlled substance, a doctor’s authorization is needed to purchase it. It took the CDCR three years to find doctors willing to do so, and it appears the CDCR had to hire them just for this purpose.
  • The CDCR now has its own drug buyer on payroll. Following the lead of Arizona, the CDCR has contracted with a specialist to continue the worldwide search for execution drugs. This appears to be how the department was able to order a half-kilo of sodium thiopental from a company in the United Kingdom. Last we heard, that order was sitting at an East Coast post office waiting for the FDA to release it.
  • CDCR officials in their emails discuss the need to “find” a reason to avoid putting the contract out for bid (as required by state law), how to avoid state rules regarding payments for international shipments, and how to prevent disclosing that they are the ones making the purchase (as required by federal law).

We still have many questions. More than a hundred pages were withheld and the documents we have received are heavily redacted. What we do know is that while public safety and health care resources are dwindling in California, state officials are wasting huge amounts of the public’s time and money, and doing everything they can to keep their bungled process secret. It’s time to save our precious resources and replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment.