The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has taken supplies of a key lethal injection drug from Kentucky and Tennessee, effectively preventing any executions in three states while it investigates how the drug was imported during a national shortage.
States have been scrambling over the past year to find a new supplier of sodium thiopental, a fast-acting sedative in a three-drug cocktail used when putting inmates to death, since its primary manufacturer in the United States stopped making the drug.
In March, the DEA took Georgia's entire supply, putting a hold on executions there following claims from a defense attorney for a death row inmate that the state bought the drug from a fly-by-night outfit in the United Kingdom.
Kentucky officials confirmed Friday that they turned their supply over to the DEA and Tennessee officials said Friday that they relinquished theirs on March 22.
There are currently no scheduled executions in Kentucky because of a court order that has temporarily halted them. In Tennessee, four inmates are scheduled for execution in September and October of this year.
The DEA and state officials have given few details about the investigation except saying there were questions about whether it was imported properly.
Kentucky officials said they were cooperating in an unspecified federal investigation and the state willingly turned over its entire supply _ enough for three executions.
"There was no court order and no search warrant," said Jennifer Brislin, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Justice Cabinet.
Brislin declined to comment further about the case Friday, as did DEA special agents Jim Balcom in Louisville and Chuvalo J. Truesdell in Atlanta.
"I think the DEA recognizes that this was likely illegally obtained," said Kentucky public defender David Barron, who represents a Kentucky man sentenced to death for killing a sheriff and a deputy.
Tennessee Department of Corrections spokeswoman Dorinda Carter said there is no allegation that Tennessee did anything improper in purchasing the drug.
Carter said the state did not purchase the drug directly from any foreign vendor, but records obtained by The Associated Press show the sales agreement sent to Tennessee for the purchase of the drug noted it would be going through U.S. Customs. Reprieve, a London-based human rights group that opposes capital punishment sued last year to try preventing a British company from exporting a drug for use in Tennessee executions.
Hospira Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill., stopped making sodium thiopental earlier this year. Records reviewed by The Associated Press found that as supplies of sodium thiopental dwindled, at least seven states _ Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Kentucky, Nebraska and Tennessee _ obtained sodium thiopental overseas, with several of them citing Georgia as the trailblazer.
It's not immediately known if the DEA is seeking to take the drug from all those states.
Oscar Hidalgo, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the agency has had no contact with the DEA regarding sodium thiopental since DEA cleared CDCR's shipment in December.
Nebraska, which recently changed its method of execution to lethal injection, announced in January it had obtained sodium thiopental from an Indian manufacturer. A corrections spokeswoman said Friday that the drug was still in the state's inventory. Arkansas officials said no drugs have been taken.
In Germany, the country's human rights commissioner is pushing for the European Union to ban the export of sodium thiopental. Capital punishment is banned in the EU and Markus Loenig said Friday there has to be a guarantee that no drugs from Germany or the EU will be used to carry out executions.
Some states have considered switching from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital, a sedative that has a range of medical uses and is used to euthanize animals. Pentobarbital has already been used to execute prisoners in Ohio and Oklahoma.
In Texas on Friday, a judge refused to block the state's switch to pentobarbital, which was opposed by a death row inmate. Cleve Foster, 47, is scheduled to be executed Tuesday for the slaying of a Sudanese woman in Fort Worth in 2002. He would be the first Texas inmate to have pentobarbital used as part of the lethal injection.
In Kentucky, Brislin said the state will continue to look for a source of sodium thiopental. Alabama still has a supply of sodium thiopental that it used Thursday to execute inmate William Glenn Boyd.
Hall reported from Nashville, Tenn.