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Attorneys for a death row inmate in Missouri asked a federal judge this afternoon to halt the man's execution. The reason? The state has had trouble finding the drugs needed to kill him. An out-of-state pharmacy was going to make the lethal compound but it has since decided not to.

As NPR's Laura Sullivan reports, states across the country are now struggling to find drugs necessary to carry out executions.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: A few years ago, Missouri, like most states, was having trouble. It couldn't find lethal injection drugs. Europe was balking, U.S. drug manufacturers didn't want a part of it. So they turned to a place called a compounding pharmacy to make up a batch of drugs based on the ingredients. Missouri officials sent an employee across state lines to Oklahoma with thousands of dollars in cash to a place called the Apothecary Shoppe.

GEORGE LOMBARDI: We searched all over the country for ways in which to get the drugs.

SULLIVAN: Last week, the head of the state's Department of Corrections, George Lombardi, explained to lawmakers why his employees had to go to such lengths.

LOMBARDI: The statute mandates that the Department of Corrections to carry out executions. And so it doesn't say try your best. It says you have to do this. That being the case, we searched every which way to do this.

SULLIVAN: Now, even that pharmacy can't help the state. Last week, attorneys for death row inmate Michael Taylor sued the Apothecary Shoppe. They said the shop can't sell compounded drugs across state lines because it's not registered with the FDA as a drug manufacturer. And, they argued, it's unregulated, so there's no way to know what the shop was making.

Yesterday, the Apothecary Shoppe agreed not to make the drugs for Taylor's execution. But they have made drugs in the past. An investigation by NPR member station St. Louis Public Radio found the pharmacy has provided execution drugs for three of Missouri's executions and possibly for other states as well. A pharmacy spokeswoman told NPR she couldn't comment, saying only that the pharmacy denies all the allegations in the recent suit.

RICHARD DIETER: The states were scrambling and still are.

SULLIVAN: Richard Dieter is executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. He says the suit will reverberate.

DIETER: It is a shot across the bow of compounding pharmacies that they are going to be sued by defendants if they're doing things across state lines that maybe they don't have full permission for, if they're not fully licensed, if they have had some sanctions in the past. Those things are going to come out.

SULLIVAN: Dieter says compounding pharmacies can be easy targets for defense lawyers because they are not highly regulated. And there have been some questionable results. Last month, an Oklahoma inmate cried out that his whole body was burning. Two years ago, it took South Dakota officials 20 minutes to declare an inmate dead because his heart kept beating. The drug mixture can also vary state to state.

DIETER: Matter of fact, there were four executions this year by four different lethal injection methods. The first four all involved different combinations, so there's a bit of an experiment still going on.

SULLIVAN: It wasn't always such an experiment, not when the drugs were coming from Europe. But a decade ago, that changed.

DIETER: Europe, who opposes the death penalty strongly, came to realize that its drugs were being used in U.S. executions and that immediately sent up alarms.

SULLIVAN: Dieter says Europe cut the supply. Now, state corrections departments are having to learn more about pharmaceutical drug manufacturing than they bargained for. In Missouri, Governor Jay Nixon said last week, the state was prepared to move ahead with its planned execution on February 26th. But it's unclear now if the state can get the lethal drug in time or find a replacement. The governor's spokesman did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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