SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California on Friday joined other states in defying a federal government order to turn over a key execution drug.
At issue is the drug sodium thiopental, one of three drugs California and dozens of other states use in lethal injections. It puts the inmate to sleep before fatal doses of two other drugs are delivered. California and others have been purchasing the drug oversees since the United States' sole manufacturer ceased production of the anesthetic in 2011.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in March ruled that the Food and Drug Administration erred in allowing the prisons to import the foreign-made drug. The judge ordered the FDA to confiscate all foreign-made sodium thiopental and to warn prisons that it was now illegal to use the drug. The FDA followed the Washington D.C.-based judge's order and sent demand letters to prisons. But beginning with Nebraska on April 20, more than a dozen states have refused to comply with the FDA order.
On Friday, California joined the protest in a letter sent to the FDA. With 725 Death Row inmates, California has the highest number of condemned prisoners.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation lawyer Benjamin Rice and the other states with foreign-bought sodium thiopental contend they aren't bound by the ruling made by a federal judge in Washington D.C. They also argue that the judge was wrong and urged the FDA to appeal.
"The CDCR is unaware of any laws or imperative that would require it to return the thiopental in question," Rice wrote Domenic Veneziano, director of the FDA's import operations. Rice wrote that subjecting lethal injection drugs to the same regulations designed to prevent illegal sales of controlled substances is a "strained interpretation" of the law.
FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess declined comment because the lawsuit at issue is still pending. The lawsuit was filed by death row inmates in three states
Local and state officials have been striving to restart executions in California since a judge blocked them in 2006 and ordered the state to overhaul its lethal injection process to ensure inmates don't suffer cruel and unusual harm. The state's efforts to resume executions in 2010 failed, in part, because its supply of sodium thiopental expired before it could lethally inject rapist-murderer Albert Brown. The state then turned to England-based pharmaceutical distributor Archimedes Pharma and purchased 521 grams of sodium thiopental.
Now, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley is trying to force the issue anew. Cooley asking a judge to order the executions of Mitchell Carleton Sims and Tiequon Aundray Cox, both of whom have been on death row for more than 25 years and have exhausted their appeals. A hearing set for Friday for a judge to hear arguments was postponed until July 13.
Cooley, who is retiring after three terms, is the first district attorney in California to make the request and his attempt comes just months before voters decide whether to abolish capital punishment.
Cooley argues that the state doesn't need to use sodium thiopental and should scrap its three-drug cocktail. Instead, Cooley wants California to start using a single-drug method employed by other states. Gov. Jerry Brown recently ordered prison officials to explore that option.
Most single-drug states, including Texas, use pentobarbital. But last week Missouri said it would begin executing inmates with the drug propofol, the same drug that accidentally killed pop star Michael Jackson. Since adopting the one-drug protocol in 2009, Ohio has carried out 15 successful executions, according to court documents.
California has executed 13 inmates since it reinstated the death penalty in 1978.
Sims was sentenced to death in 1986 after being convicted of murdering a Glendale pizza deliveryman. Sims, 52, also faces a death sentence in South Carolina for murdering two co-workers.
Cox, 46, was a gang member who gunned down a grandmother, her daughter and two grandchildren in 1984. A 14-year-old boy hid in a closet, which authorities say saved his life.