All Georgia executions are off after federal drug agents seized the state's supply of a sedative used in lethal injections that has been challenged by capital punishment critics and death-row inmates, including a man recently executed who called the British exporter of the drug a "fly-by-night supplier."
Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Chuvalo Truesdell wouldn't say exactly why Georgia's supply of sodium thiopental was taken Tuesday, just that "we had questions about how the drug was imported to the U.S." The sedative is part of a three-drug cocktail used in executions that has been in short supply since the sole U.S. manufacturer stopped making it.
No more execution dates in Georgia have been scheduled and it's unlikely any will be set before the issue is resolved. Georgia Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Lauren Kane said prosecutors couldn't ask a judge to set executions if corrections officials didn't have the necessary supplies to carry one out.
Georgia's stockpile of the drug has been a target of death row inmates and capital punishment critics since corrections officials released documents this year showing the state obtained the drug from Link Pharmaceuticals, a firm purchased five years ago by Archimedes Pharma Limited. Both are British firms.
The drug was used in January to execute Emmanuel Hammond, a 45-year-old man convicted for the 1988 shotgun slaying of an Atlanta preschool teacher. His attorneys sought a delay to gather more information on how the state obtained the drug, claiming in court documents it came from a "fly-by-night supplier operating from the back of a driving school in England." They said the drug could have been counterfeit.
The U.S. Supreme Court, as well as lower courts, rejected Hammond's argument.
The state's stockpile came under more scrutiny in February when John Bentivoglio, a former deputy attorney general, asked the Justice Department to launch an investigation into whether state corrections officials violated federal law by not registering with the DEA when it imported its supply of sodium thiopental.
"The United States has strict drug import rules for a reason: To ensure drugs used for legitimate purposes are not adulterated, counterfeit, or diverted into the illicit market," said Bentivoglio, who is representing death row inmate Andrew Grant DeYoung.
Joan Heath, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections, said state officials were not concerned with the quality of the drug and just wanted to make sure they were complying with the law.
"We contacted the DEA and asked them for a regulatory review, and that's what we're doing," she said. "We're going to make sure we're in regulatory compliance with the DEA over how we handle controlled substances."
Truesdell, the DEA spokesman, said he was not certain if other states' supplies of sodium thiopental were also being collected by the agency. Officials in Arkansas and California said authorities have not seized their supplies.
Defense attorneys were elated by the news.
"We commend the DEA for forcing the Department of Corrections to immediately cease using black market execution drugs," said William Montross, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which had sought to delay Blankenship's execution.
The Austin American-Statesman carries an earlier version of the AP report, with additional reporting by the Statesman's Mike Ward, "DEA seizes Georgia's supply of execution drug."
Georgia's stockpile of the drug has been a target since corrections officials released documents this year showing the state obtained the drug from Link Pharmaceuticals, a British company.
The drug was used in January to execute Emmanuel Hammond, convicted in the 1988 shotgun slaying of an Atlanta preschool teacher. His attorneys sought a delay to gather more information on how the state obtained the drug, claiming in court documents it came from a "fly-by-night supplier operating from the back of a driving school in England." They said the drug could have been counterfeit.
The U.S. Supreme Court, as well as lower courts, rejected Hammond's argument.
The state's stockpile came under additional scrutiny in February when John Bentivoglio, a former deputy attorney general, asked the Justice Department to launch an investigation into whether state corrections officials violated federal law by not registering with the DEA when it imported the sodium thiopental.
"The United States has strict drug import rules for a reason: to ensure drugs used for legitimate purposes are not adulterated, counterfeit or diverted into the illicit market," said Bentivoglio, who is representing death row inmate Andrew Grant DeYoung.
Texas' stock of sodium thiopental expires at the end of this month, and officials are looking for alternatives.
They are trying to find a new supply of sodium thiopental and, barring that, considering a switch to another drug, possibly phenobarbital, for the three-drug cocktail. A decision is expected soon, because Texas' next execution is scheduled for April 5.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, "DEA seizes Georgia's supply of lethal injection drug." It's written by Bill Rankin and Kristi E. Swartz.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has seized Georgia's supply of a key execution drug over questions about how it was imported to the United States.
"Drugs were seized today by the DEA from our facility in Jackson," Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kristen Stancil told the AJC.
The seizure comes more than two weeks after an attorney representing a death row inmate from Cobb County wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder saying the Georgia Department of Corrections circumvented federal law in trying to quickly secure a scarce drug used in lethal injections.
"DEA did take control of the controlled substances today," DEA spokesman Chuvalo Truesdell told the AJC. "There were questions about the way the drugs were imported over here."
Truesdell declined further comment, saying it is now "a regulatory investigation."
John Bentivoglio, a former associate deputy U.S. attorney general in Washington, described extraordinary steps the DOC took to get the sedative thiopental, a scheduled III non-narcotic controlled substance, when a shipment for several states, including Georgia, was held by U.S. Customs in Memphis last summer.
The letter said Corrections is not registered with the federal government to import drugs and the agency did not “submit a declaration to the Drug Enforcement Administration when GDC imported thiopental last year.
Stancil told the AJC after the letter was mailed, the agency asked the DEA for assistance "to make sure that the department was in compliance with the way we handled controlled substances."
Colleen Jenkins post, "U.S. agents seize Georgia execution drug supply," for Reuters, via WXIN-TV in Atlanta.
The federal government stepped in following a letter sent last month to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on behalf of Georgia death row inmate Andrew Grant DeYoung.
With sodium thiopental in short supply nationally, Georgia corrections officials ordered the drug from a pharmaceutical distributor in London, England, DeYoung attorney John Bentivoglio wrote in the February 24 letter.
The state received 50 vials of sodium thiopental in July, Bentivoglio said, citing public records.
But Bentivoglio said the state was not registered to import the controlled substance and failed to notify DEA about the shipment.
"I think it raises very troubling questions about the lengths to which they would go to pursue lethal injections when that process requires careful attention to the integrity of the process," Bentivoglio told Reuters on Tuesday.
"Feds seize Georgia's supply of lethal-injection drug," is the CNN report.
Thiopental is available only from international sources, since the drug's sole U.S. manufacturer, Hospira, stopped making the sedative in 2009. But the countries where the drug is made do not allow its export if it is going to be used for capital punishment, the Journal-Constitution reported.
Thirteen states wrote a letter to the Justice Department seeking help in obtaining the drug. Georgia was not among them.
Six death-row inmates have sued to prevent the Food and Drug Administration from importing thiopental, and last month one inmate's lawyer wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder to question how Georgia obtained its supply.
Nathan Koppel writes, "Georgia Execution Drug Is Seized," for the Wall Street Journal.
Georgia has used imported thiopental to carry out two lethal injections, the September execution of Brandon Rhode and the January execution of Emmanuel Hammond, according to court documents.
Witnesses to the Rhode and Hammond executions have questioned whether the state's imported thiopental properly sedated the men, potentially subjecting them to painful deaths.
"DEA Seizes Lethal Injection Drug from Ga. Corrections Department," by Debra Cassens Weiss at ABA Journal.
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