SACRAMENTO — Desperately seeking a drug that would allow them to execute a death row inmate last fall, California prison officials scoured the nation for a dose, calling dozens of hospitals, local surgery centers, the Department of Veterans Affairs and other states for help, newly released documents show.
The documents, released earlier this week as a result of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, reveal new details of how California sought to cajole the governor of Texas to lend the state a supply of sodium thiopental. At one point, California considered buying a batch from a supplier in Pakistan, previously released documents state.
Ultimately, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation turned to Arizona as part of what it described as a "secret and important mission" to pick up the drug from a prison south of Phoenix, then drive it to San Quentin.
The planned execution of Albert Greenwood Brown, which set off the search, never took place. California eventually bought a British supply of the drug for $36,415, but details of that transaction remain secret.
The ACLU has contended the state cannot use a foreign-made supply of the drug without the approval of the federal Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA issued a statement Wednesday saying the agency "does not review or approve products for the purpose of lethal injects."
The agency confirmed it was releasing the British shipment to California without reviewing the drug "to determine their identity, safety, effectiveness, surety or any other characteristics."
"We're comfortable that it will be arriving in the coming days," corrections spokesman Oscar Hidalgo said.
The ACLU disputes whether that drug can legally be used in future executions – none is currently scheduled – and believes it's an issue that will be addressed in court, said Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director for the ACLU's Northern California branch.
The nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental, a fast-acting barbiturate that is the first of three drugs administered in lethal injection executions, has bedeviled corrections officials nationwide as they seek to put condemned inmates to death.
The U.S. maker of the drug has said it will not be able to manufacture new batches until early this year and has made it clear to states that it opposes the anesthetic's use in executions. That set off international searches for the drug by states seeking to put inmates to death.
Details of California's efforts last fall remained sketchy until the ACLU prevailed in court to force the release of public records describing the search for the drug.
So far, the ACLU has received nearly 1,200 pages of e-mails, correspondence and other documents from its lawsuit against California's corrections department.
The portrait the documents paint is one of officials calling everyone imaginable to obtain the drug, which they first learned was in short supply last June.
"We have contacted 80-90 hospitals over the past few days and none of them have a drop of Pentothal," said one e-mail dated Sept. 16, two weeks before Brown's scheduled execution. That e-mail, like many in the documents released, had the identities of the sender and recipients redacted.
"I called approximately 100 hospitals and local general surgery centers," John McAuliffe, a contract worker for the corrections department, wrote to Undersecretary Scott Kernan on Sept. 29, the day before Brown was scheduled to die.
"Still have not heard from AZ," Kernan then wrote to department Secretary Matt Cate. "Trying not to press to (sic) hard." Cate replied with an e-mail asking if military hospitals had been called and noting that he had called an official with Veterans Affairs.
Finally, California received guidance from Arizona on how to obtain the drug from a London supplier. With officials in most states unable or unwilling to share their doses of sodium thiopental, officials believed a foreign supplier was their only viable avenue.