Attorney General Temporarily Halts California Executions

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    SAN QUENTIN, CA - MAY 15: A view of the California State Prison at San Quentin May 15, 2009 in San Quentin, California. In an effort to raise cash to help California's financial woes, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to sell some well known State properties. The Los Angeles Coliseum, San Quentin State Prison, The Cow Palace and the Orange County fairgrounds are some of the properties that the governor has named. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

    The California attorney general's office says a shortage of a drug used for lethal injections will temporarily halt state executions after Sept. 30.

    The shortage, however, will not stop the planned execution of Albert Greenwood Brown, who is scheduled to die Wednesday.
        
    The attorney general's spokeswoman, Christine Gasparac, says corrections officials notified her office that the state has been unable to secure more supplies of the drug, sodium thiopental. It's the anesthetic that renders the condemned inmate unconscious before lethal drugs are injected.

    Also Monday, a federal judge refused a stay on executions as San Quentin prepares its new lethal injection chamber.  Albert Brown has sued the state, alleging its new lethal injection regulations were improperly adopted.  On Friday, a federal judge in San Jose also refused Brown's request to halt the execution.

    Albert Brown is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. It will be the state's first execution since 2006.
         
    Gasparac told The Associated Press on Monday that  Attorney General Jerry Brown will recommend that future executions not be scheduled until the drug supply is available. The stay would start on Sept. 30, the day after Greenwood is put to death.
         
    The drug's manufacturer, Hospira, has blamed the shortage on "raw-material supplier issues" since last spring. The company is promising availability in early 2011.

    California joins a long list of states who have had to halt executions because of the shortage.

    Several of the 35 states that rely on lethal injection are either scrambling to find sodium thiopental — an anesthetic that renders the condemned inmate unconscious — or considering using another drug. But both routes are strewn with legal or ethical roadblocks.

    The shortage delayed an Oklahoma execution last month and led Kentucky's governor to postpone the signing of death warrants for two inmates. Arizona is trying to get its hands on the drug in time for its next execution, in late October.

    The sole U.S. manufacturer, Hospira Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill., has blamed the shortage on unspecified problems with its raw-material suppliers and said new batches of sodium thiopental will not be available until January at the earliest.

    Nine states have a total of 17 executions scheduled between now and the end of January, including Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

    "We are working to get it back onto the market for our customers as soon as possible," Hospira spokesman Dan Rosenberg said.

    But at least one death penalty expert was skeptical of Hospira's explanation, noting that the company has made it clear it objects to using its drugs for executions. Hospira also makes the two other chemicals used in lethal injections.

    Sodium thiopental is a barbiturate, used primarily to anesthetize surgical patients and induce medical comas. It is also used to help terminally ill people commit suicide and sometimes to euthanize animals.

    Thirty-three of the states that have lethal injection employ the three-drug combination that was created in the 1970s: First, sodium thiopental is given by syringe to put the inmate to sleep. Then two other drugs are administered: pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes muscles, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

    Ohio and Washington state use just one drug to carry out executions: a single, extra-large dose of sodium thiopental.

    Hospira has blamed the shortage on "raw-material supplier issues" since last spring, first promising availability in July, then October, then early 2011. The company has refused to elaborate on the problem. But according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press from the Kentucky governor's office, Hospira told state officials that it lost its sole supplier of the drug's active ingredient and was trying to find a new one.

    As for the possibility of obtaining the drug elsewhere, the Food and Drug Administration said there are no FDA-approved manufacturers of sodium thiopental overseas.

    Switching to another anesthetic would be difficult for some states. Some, like California, Missouri and Kentucky, adopted their execution procedures after lengthy court proceedings, and changing drugs could take time and invite lawsuits.

    Obtaining sodium thiopental from hospitals does not appear to be an option, either. Sodium thiopental has been largely supplanted by other anesthetics in the U.S., and hospitals do not stock much of it.

    Also, drug purchasing and use rules — and ethical guidelines that bar the medical profession from getting involved in executions — could prevent hospitals from supplying prisons with the drug, according to industry experts.

    "Many of these cases, the victims have waited for 20 years, some of them longer than that. If we're out of that drug, we need to have an alternative," said Tennessee state Sen. Jim Tracy. Tennessee said it has enough of the drug for a November execution and expects to be able to carry out another in December.

    Last spring, Hospira, a publicly traded company, sent a letter to all states outlining its discomfort with the use of its drugs for executions, as it has done periodically.

    "Hospira provides these products because they improve or save lives and markets them solely for use as indicated on the product labeling," Kees Groenhout, clinical research and development vice president, said in a March 31 letter to Ohio, obtained by the AP. "As such, we do not support the use of any of our products in capital punishment procedures."

    Jonathan Groner, an Ohio State University surgeon and death penalty opponent who researches the issue, speculated the real reason for the unavailability of sodium thiopental is that its medical uses "have shrunk to the point that the company doesn't want to make a drug that has no use but to kill people."

    However, Rosenberg, the company spokesman, said the shortage has nothing to do with that.

    Last month, an Oklahoma judge delayed the execution of Jeffrey Matthews when the state tried to switch anesthetics after running out of its regular supply in August. Matthews was convicted of killing his 77-year-old great-uncle during a 1994 robbery. Oklahoma finally found enough sodium thiopental from another state, but the court-ordered delay continues.

    A few weeks ago, Kentucky's governor held off signing death warrants — which set execution dates and allow executions to proceed — for two inmates because the state is almost out of sodium thiopental. The state's lone dose hits its expiration date Oct. 1.

    Kentucky officials said they have contacted other states unsuccessfully in a search for sodium thiopental and have gotten calls from states looking for the drug.

    Kent Cattani, Arizona's top death penalty prosecutor, said Wednesday that the state doesn't have the drug and he is not optimistic it can be obtained in time for the Oct. 26 execution of Jeffrey Landrigan, who was sentenced to death for stabbing and strangling a man in 1989. But later, an Arizona Corrections Department spokesman said the agency has placed orders for sodium thiopental and expects to have it by next week.

    The supply appears to be vary from place to place.

    Georgia and California pressed ahead with plans for executions on Monday night and Wednesday, respectively. Georgia's Corrections Department said it has an "appropriate supply" of sodium thiopental and is prepared to carry out executions. California officials would not discuss the issue.

    Virginia apparently had enough Thursday to execute Teresa Lewis, the first woman put to death in the U.S. since 2005. But officials suggested Virginia could have a problem after that, though the state has no executions scheduled.

    "We are in the same position as every other state regarding this matter," said Larry Traylor, Virginia prisons spokesman. He would not be more specific.

    Missouri has enough for an October execution, but its supply expires in January.

    Ohio, which spends about $350 for the drug for each execution, ran out of the amount state procedures call for just three days before a May 13 execution. The state obtained enough in time but won't say where.

    Prisons officials in Texas, the nation's busiest death penalty state, refused to discuss how much sodium thiopental they have on hand, saying the information could inflame protesters outside the death house, and "people could get seriously hurt or killed."