Executions in Georgia could soon resume after prison officials decided to swap out a lethal injection drug that was surrendered to federal regulators, the corrections department said Friday.
The Georgia Department of Corrections will substitute pentobarbital for sodium thiopental, a drug that was in scarce supply nationwide even before Georgia's stash was taken by the Drug Enforcement Administration in March, said Robert Jones, the department's general counsel.
"We're confident it will be effective," Jones said of the pentobarbital, which would be used in combination with pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Jones said pentobarbital was picked because it's readily available throughout the U.S. and because several other capital punishment states have already adopted it.
"We await guidance and instruction from courts in Georgia," he said. "We stand ready to carry out those orders now."
Georgia was forced to surrender its supply of sodium thiopental to the DEA amid questions about whether the prison officials circumvented the law to obtain the supply. The Georgia Attorney General's office said the move effectively halted executions in Georgia because corrections officials didn't have the necessary supplies to carry one out.
Switching to pentobarbital should allow the state to move ahead with the execution of Troy Anthony Davis, whose high-profile case has become a rallying point for opponents of the death penalty.
Prosecutors have spent more than two decades trying to execute Davis, who was sentenced to die for the 1989 slaying of a Savannah police officer, and the state won a key legal battle in March when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected what could be his final appeal. But prosecutors couldn't schedule his execution because Georgia didn't have the lethal injection drug.
Chatham County District Attorney spokeswoman Alicia Johnson said the office was "not immediately" filing paperwork to seek an execution order for Davis, but his supporters were already readying for a legal fight.
Many of the nation's 34 death penalty states have scrambled to find a new supplier of sodium thiopental after Hospira Inc., its sole manufacturer in the U.S., said in January it would no longer make the drug. Several states postponed executions amid the shortage, and records reviewed by the Associated Press found that Georgia and at least six other states obtained sodium thiopental overseas.
Georgia's stockpile of the drug came under more scrutiny when corrections officials released documents in court that showed the state bought the drug from Dream Pharma in London. Defense attorneys call Dream Pharma a fly-by-night supplier that operates from the back of a driving school. The firm hasn't responded to repeated emails and phone calls seeking comment.
John Bentivoglio, who represents a condemned Georgia inmate, said in a letter that Georgia may have also failed to properly register with the DEA before importing a controlled substance. He said the violation means "adulterated, counterfeit or otherwise ineffective" sodium thiopental could be used in executions, violating the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Jones said the corrections department is cooperating with the investigation, and that he had no concerns about the quality of the state's supply of sodium thiopental, which was used to execute two inmates.
"They were appropriately packaged, appropriately labeled. We're confident also the state didn't break any criminal laws of any kind," said Jones. "It's a regulatory question, and the question was whether we had sent a letter to the DEA advising them we were importing from overseas."
The Justice Department declined to comment on the probe.
Georgia officials have laid the groundwork for a switch for weeks. Corrections officials met with counterparts in Ohio and Oklahoma, which have already used pentobarbital to execute inmates. They have also collected hundreds of pages of legal filings and other documents about the drugs, and drafted several proposals for the switch, according to more than 1,000 pages of files reviewed by The Associated Press.
Georgia is one of at least 10 states that have switched or are considering a switch to pentobarbital, a surgical sedative that's also commonly used to euthanize animals.
Several Georgia death row inmates, including Davis, have exhausted or nearly exhausted their appeals. State authorities have set three previous execution dates for Davis since 2007 only to have each postponed so judges could review the case.
Laura Moye of Amnesty International USA, which has helped stage dozens of rallies in support of Davis, said capital punishment is an "error-prone system that has sent far too many innocent people to death row."
"Replacing the supply of sodium thiopental amounts to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," said Moye, who heads the group's anti-death penalty campaign.
Associated Press Writer Russ Bynum in Savannah contributed to this report.
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