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In Georgia, executions of death row inmates have been put on hold. The Drug Enforcement Administration has seized the state's supply of sodium thiopental -one of the drugs used in lethal injections. The federal government has questions about whether the drug was imported illegally from Britain. Several other states may also have to answer questions about how they obtained their supplies. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.
KATHY LOHR: There's been a lot of secrecy surrounding how states have been getting sodium thiopental since a U.S. company stopped making the sedative in 2009. Records show Georgia bought the drug from the English distributor, Dream Pharma.
In court, the Georgia Department of Corrections said it was not worried about the quality of its supply, but defense attorneys got records that showed the state may have violated federal law in obtaining the drug.
Mr. WILLIAM MONTROSS (Attorney, Southern Center for Human Rights): Georgia has engaged in a pattern of illegality and shady misconduct to get drugs to execute people.
LOHR: William Montross is an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. He says the state bought sodium thiopental from a secondary distributor, a company that operated out of the back of a London driving school. Montross says many defense attorneys condemned the practice and question the quality of the drugs.
Mr. MONTROSS: This stuff was going on for months and months beforehand, and it was in court and federal and state judges had an opportunity to do something, and no one did anything. They just turned a blind eye. And then finally DEA steps in.
LOHR: Since the shortage of sodium thiopental began, some suggested the Food and Drug Administration should inspect the quality of the drugs being imported, but that agency declined to get involved.
The DEA has not said whether it will seize supplies of sodium thiopental in other states, but some following the issue say the agency should. Deborah Denno is a professor at Fordham Law School.
Professor DEBORAH DENNO (Fordham Law School): You know, we've already seen that the shortage has delayed executions in a number of states - in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia and Tennessee - and all those states have had to go to England for their supply of the drug. So it bears investigating whether those states have been engaging in the same kind of activity as Georgia has been.
LOHR: A DEA spokesman in Atlanta says the agency is working with the Georgia Department of Corrections to make sure it complies with federal regulations, but declined further comment. The Georgia Department of Corrections did not return calls.
But defense attorneys cite another problem. They say Georgia officials sold some of their supply of sodium thiopental to Kentucky officials. That raises more questions about where the drugs might end up.
Ms. MEGAN MCCRACKEN (University of California Berkley): Once the drug enters the country, there's a real risk of diversion.
LOHR: Megan McCracken is with the death penalty clinic at the University of California Berkley.
Ms. MCCRACKEN: There's no guarantee that the drug will remain within this closed system of capitol punishment. In the past month, we've learned that the state of Kentucky purchased sodium thiopental from a private company in Georgia; and so if a private company is selling it, we now have sort of realization of this risk of the drug entering the stream of commerce.
LOHR: An open records request in Kentucky revealed that state had purchased sodium thiopental from CorrectHealth, a Georgia company that provides all medical services for the Georgia Department of Corrections. The head of that company denied selling the drug.
As questions remain over the supply of sodium thiopental, states are seeking alternatives. Texas officials just announced they will join two other states, Ohio and Oklahoma, and switch to using the sedative, pentobarbital. Texas plans to use the new drug in an execution scheduled for next month.
Kathy LOHR, NPR News, Atlanta.
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