States switch death drug

Jeffrey Motts

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nearly two-thirds of the 16 states with active death chambers are switching to an alternative sedative for execution -- even as the drug's manufacturer argues against its use in capital punishment and some European countries push export bans for such drugs.

Ten states have now switched to pentobarbital or are considering a switch as part of their three-drug methods, according to a survey of all death penalty states by The Associated Press. Among those joining the states that previously switched are Alabama, Louisiana and Florida.

South Carolina is considering using the drug as it prepares for an execution next month.

At issue is a shortage of sodium thiopental, a sedative that states used for more than three decades until its only U.S. manufacturer stopped making it in 2009 and then dropped plans to resume production earlier this year.

The shortage forced several states to scramble to find new supplies and executions were temporarily delayed in Arizona, California, Georgia and Oklahoma. States swapped supplies of sodium thiopental or looked overseas, to England, India and even Pakistan.

Both sodium thiopental and pentobarbital are fast-acting barbiturates that in massive intravenous doses will quickly stop a person's breathing and cause death in 10 to 15 minutes.

One difference: pentobarbital is considerably more expensive. Ohio spent $218 for 5 grams of sodium thiopental in February, but spent $2,200 for 5 grams of pentobarbital for a March execution. Prisons spokesman Carlo LoParo said the state had no alternative.

As states scrambled for fresh supplies, several turned to England and obtained doses of sodium thiopental not approved for medical use in this country by the FDA.

But that source dried up after the British government banned the drug's export for use in executions and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration began seizing supplies of the drug from Georgia and other states over questions of whether the states broke the law to get it.

Death row inmates in Arizona, California and Tennessee sued over the imported drugs, alleging the FDA knowingly allowed the import of a drug that hadn't been approved by the agency.

Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union show the FDA quietly assisted some states in importing sodium thiopental from overseas. The agency has said reviewing death penalty drugs for import falls outside its mission.

South Carolina also obtained its supply of sodium thiopental from England, informed the DEA after the agency began seizing other states' supply, and handed the supply over to the DEA on Thursday. South Carolina is exploring pentobarbital, possibly used alone, and other options before the scheduled May 6 execution of Jeffrey Motts, 36, condemned to die for killing his cellmate in 2005 while serving two life sentences for a previous double homicide.

"We're looking at other alternatives, just as other states have done," said South Carolina prisons spokesman John Barkley.

The 10 states that have either switched to pentobarbital or are considering a switch are among 16 states that held executions in the past three years or have executions scheduled this year.

Five of those states say they're exploring their options or researching the issue, phrases other states used before announcing the switch. A sixth, Washington, has no plans to change.

Only two states, Ohio and Oklahoma, have used pentobarbital in executions.