The federal government has told state attorneys general that it has run out of a key execution drug and is exploring alternatives, dashing states' hopes of obtaining a federal supply of the drug. Concerns about the shortage were highlighted Thursday when Ohio executed a man with another drug never before used alone in an execution.
States wrote U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in January asking for help obtaining sodium thiopental. The anesthetic is used by virtually all death penalty states, but supplies ran short when its U.S. manufacturer stopped production.
"At the present time, the federal government does not have any reserves of sodium thiopental for lethal injections and is therefore facing the same dilemma as many states," Holder said in a March 4 letter sent to the National Association of Attorneys General and obtained by The Associated Press.
Holder said the lack of an available supply of sodium thiopental "is a serious concern."
Justice Department spokeswoman Alisa Finelli said the agency had no comment. The attorneys general also declined to comment and a Bureau of Prisons spokesman said the agency did not have an immediate response.
Holder said federal officials, including the Bureau of Prisons' general counsel, were researching alternatives, including "any necessary changes to current federal death penalty procedures."
The immediate impact of the federal shortage of sodium thiopental is minimal. A lawsuit challenging the federal government's injection procedures is pending, and the U.S. government has not executed anyone since 2003. The letter didn't explain how the government ran out of the drug, but all remaining supplies of it expire this year.
Alternative used alone in Ohio
Oklahoma and Ohio have switched to pentobarbital, a surgical sedative, as an alternative. Oklahoma uses it along with drugs to paralyze inmates and stop their hearts. Ohio uses it alone.
The drug was used Thursday to kill death row inmate Johhnie Baston, who died 13 minutes after executioners started the injection. Baston, 37, briefly gasped and appeared to grimace, but the moment passed quickly and he lay still for most of the process. Baston was convicted of killing Chong-Hoon Mah, 53, a South Korean immigrant whose family opposes the death penalty and was against Baston's execution.
Other states are likely to make a similar switch to get around the problems of obtaining sodium thiopental, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.
Some states, including Arizona, California, Georgia and Tennessee, have obtained supplies of sodium thiopental from England, although the British government has since banned its export for use in executions.
In February, death row inmates in Arizona, California and Tennessee sued the Food and Drug Administration to block imports of the drug. The lawsuit claims the FDA has knowingly allowed state corrections officials to import sodium thiopental that has not been approved by the agency.
The federal government will either have to look overseas for a source or switch to an alternative like pentobarbital following administrative hearings, said Ty Alper, associate director of the Berkeley law school's death penalty clinic.
The federal government also must contend with the 2005 challenge to the government's execution procedures still pending in federal court.
"I don't think there's likely to be any federal executions any time soon," Alper said Thursday.
No federal executions since 2003
The last person put to death by the U.S. government was Louis Jones Jr., a Gulf War veteran executed in 2003 and sentenced to die for raping and killing a female soldier.
Jones was only the third person — after Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and drug kingpin Juan Garza — put to death by the federal government since it resumed executions in 2001 after a 38-year suspension.
In December, the Bureau of Prisons told a federal judge it planned to set an execution date for Jeffery Paul, 34, sentenced to death for the 1995 slaying of a retired National Park Service employee on federal land in Hot Springs, Ark.
The states that signed the January letter asking Holder for help are: Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.