The US state of Georgia has halted executions after authorities seized drugs used for lethal injections of death row prisoners, following defence lawyer claims that the drugs could be out of date or even counterfeit.
While officials with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) refused to spell out the reasons for the seizure, it underscored the difficulties that several US states are facing in securing sufficient supplies of the drug, sodium thiopental, since the sole American manufacturer, Hospira of Illinois, discontinued production two years ago. It is one of the three drugs approved for use in executions by lethal injection and is used to render the condemned prisoner unconscious.
Earlier this year, lawyers for Georgia death row inmate Emmanuel Hammond, who was convicted for killing a kindergarten teacher in 1988, tried but failed to have his execution delayed because of concerns about the British-supplied drug. Following the DEA action, the state will be unable to schedule new executions.
Georgia corrections officials have identified the source as Link Pharmaceuticals. It now trades under Archimedes Pharma Limited, another British firm that took the firm over five years ago. This has sounded alarm bells, particularly if the drugs received still carry Link Pharmaceuticals labels, because the shelf life is only three years.
The mystery may go deeper still, however. According to the Southern Centre for Human Rights, lawyers for Hammond identified the supplier as Dream Pharma Ltd, which operates from a driving school office in Acton, west London. Anti-death penalty activists have used the thiopental controversy to slow executions in several states.
"We commend the DEA for forcing the (Georgia) Department of Corrections to immediately cease using black-market execution drugs," said William Montross of the Southern Center for Human Rights. "It is an incredible relief that this federal agency has stepped up and intervened where the state and federal courts have turned a blind eye."
Hospira said earlier this year that it was abandoning plans to relocate production of thiopental to a plant in Italy, because of strong resistance from officials in Rome as capital punishment is barred under the Italian constitution.
The focus of the DEA investigation is first likely to be whether Georgia violated rules for the proper importation of drugs from Britain.
Dream Pharma is not thought to have made the drugs. Instead, defence lawyers for death-row prisoners have alleged that the firm acted as a middle man by buying them from British manufacturers and then selling them on to the US.
The owner of Dream Pharma, Mehdi Alavi, declined to comment about whether his firm had supplied the drugs when approached by The Independent in January. Calls last night to Dream Pharma in Acton were not answered.