Arkansas latest state to turn over execution drug

July 22, 2011 - 3:15 AM

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas has become latest state to surrender its supply of a key lethal-injection drug obtained from a British supplier amid legal questions about how the states obtained the drug.

The supply of sodium thiopental that Arkansas received from London-based Dream Pharma was turned over this month to federal drug officials, state Department of Correction spokeswoman Dina Tyler said Thursday.

Sodium thiopental is a sedative in the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections. It has been hard to come by since its sole U.S. manufacturer stopped making it, which promoted Arkansas and at least half a dozen other death-penalty states to turn their attention to suppliers overseas.

That shift resulted in legal challenges by attorneys for death-row inmates about whether the states circumvented the law to get the drug and whether the drug would cause an inmate unnecessary pain and suffering. The Drug Enforcement Administration seized Georgia's entire supply of the drug in March, and DEA agents later took supplies in Kentucky and Tennessee.

In those states, the seizures effectively halted executions — if only temporarily. Georgia executed an inmate using a different drug Thursday.

Arkansas doesn't have any scheduled executions, in part because of a lawsuit claiming that the sodium thiopental obtained from Dream Pharma could cause unnecessary suffering. But even if an execution were set, the state wouldn't be able to carry it out without finding another supplier or switching to a different drug.

Arkansas turned over the last of its supply of sodium thiopental from Dream Pharma on July 5, according to court documents filed Thursday by Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. McDaniel argued that the move made some of the lawsuit's arguments moot.

"The controversy the prisoners have attempted to create regarding the three alleged risks arising from sodium thiopental obtained from Dream Pharma no longer exists," the attorney general said in the court brief.

The federal public defender's office, whose lawyers represent some of the inmates, declined comment Thursday night, as did William J. Bryant, Assistant Special Agent in Charge at the DEA in Little Rock.

"With the concerns around the drug, we think it was a prudent step for the (corrections) department to take," said Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe.

Tyler, the prisons spokeswoman, said the state could find another source of sodium thiopental overseas, look to other states to borrow the drug or switch to another execution drug.

"Right now we're just exploring our options," she said. "We don't have any pending executions, which gives us time to figure out which direction is best for the state and the agency."

Using other drugs in lethal injections has drawn concerns, too. An inmate in Georgia claims that the state's new execution drug — the sedative pentobarbital — would cause him needless pain and suffering.

Arkansas hasn't put anyone to death since 2005.

Aside from the question over sodium thiopental, attorneys for death-row inmates argue that legislators didn't have the authority to transfer responsibility for execution policies from the Legislature to the Department of Correction in 2009, calling the move a violation of the state Constitution.

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Jeannie Nuss can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss