A San Francisco judge has given state corrections officials until Tuesday to explain how they obtained fresh stocks of sodium thiopental, the key drug used in lethal-injection executions that is no longer available from the sole U.S. manufacturer.
The state reported in October that it had acquired 12 grams of the drug — enough for four executions. On Nov. 22, the office of Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown reported that the state had ordered an additional 521 grams and expected delivery this week. That would be enough to put to death more than 170 other inmates on California's teeming death row.
The origin of the drug has infused the capital punishment debate with new controversy and legal challenges as death penalty states across the country face lawsuits from condemned inmates claiming that the sodium thiopental supplies apparently acquired overseas aren't approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and could inflict unconstitutional pain and suffering.
Arizona acquired the drug from a British source in October for the execution of convicted killer Jeffrey Landrigan. British officials last week announced that they would bar further exports of the drug for use in executions, which all European nations have renounced as human rights violations.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a public records request with the state last month, deeming the execution drug's source a matter of important public interest.
"When the business at hand is execution, there could hardly be a more compelling argument for transparency," said Michael Risher, a staff attorney for the rights group.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Charlotte W. Woolard on Tuesday ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to comply with the ACLU's request for all records of its "acquisition, use and destruction of sodium thiopental."
An attorney retained by the corrections department, Kenneth C. Mennemeier, responded with an objection to that deadline, urging postponement until Dec. 14 to give officials time to collect and evaluate the requested documents, including whether some of that information should remain confidential.
The nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental has delayed executions in a number of states, including Tennessee, Ohio and Oklahoma.
California corrections officials scheduled what would have been the state's first execution in nearly five years for Sept. 30, but had to call it off when a federal judge reviewing recent revisions to the three-drug lethal injection procedures rejected the state's timing of the execution to beat the expiration date for its last few grams of sodium thiopental.
California has 713 inmates on death row, by far the largest condemned population in the country. Only six have exhausted all appeals and could be subject to death warrants once the new lethal injection procedures are cleared in federal court, likely to occur early next year.