Recent reporting by The Intercept confirms a story aired in April 2024 on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver identifying Connecticut-based Absolute Standards as the source of the execution drugs used in 13 federal executions in 2020 and 2021. Absolute Standards produces materials for calibrating research equipment, but in 2018, it applied to the Drug Enforcement Administration to be registered as a bulk producer of pentobarbital, the anesthetic used in federal executions and in many death penalty states.

An anonymous source told The Intercept about a meeting with the company’s owner and its director, saying, “They’d been reading about it in the papers. And they saw that people couldn’t get it. They were like, ‘Well, we make the standard, so we know how to make it. So we can just make it.’ They basically bragged about how they built this little home market.” Absolute Standards produced the raw ingredient, which was sent to an unknown company that used it to make pentobarbital. 

A former official from the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), who also remained anonymous, couldn’t remember exactly how Absolute Standards was identified as a possible source of execution drugs, but said, “I know that we had people that were just calling every company that they could to find out if they were able and willing to produce it.” Out of concern that revealing the company’s identity might lead to boycotts or protests, the payments from the government were not logged in its usual public system. “I don’t recall how it was done. It was probably not done through their normal payments process,” the former BOP official said. “Everything was done discreetly, because again, the fear was that publicity would result in this company no longer wanting to be willing to do business.”

Though Absolute Standards was not publicly named as the drug supplier until 2024, it was known to members of Congress when the federal executions began during the Trump Administration. Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Jamie Raskin sent the company a letter on the day of the first federal execution in 2020, asking about its involvement, but never received a reply. A staffer for Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro raised concerns with Connecticut Attorney General William Tong that death penalty states might seek also drugs from the company. “There are several states that are now actively looking to follow the federal government’s lead in acquiring this drug and resuming executions,” she wrote. AG Tong then wrote to Absolute Standards, explaining that, “Connecticut has a strong public policy against executions.” The state abolished capital punishment in 2012. Producing execution drugs for other states, AG Tong wrote, “is contrary to the values and policies of this state.”

The revelation of the drug supplier comes three years after the last federal execution. After President Biden took office in 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a moratorium on executions and directed the Deputy Attorney General to lead a multi-pronged review of the federal government’s execution policies, including changes recently made under the Trump Administration. They included: 1) a review coordinated by the Office of Legal Policy of the Addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol, adopted in 2019, to assess the risk of pain and suffering associated with the use of pentobarbital; 2) a review coordinated by the Office of Legal Policy to consider changes to Justice Department regulations made in November 2020 that expanded the permissible methods of execution beyond lethal injection, and authorized the use of state facilities and personnel in federal executions; and 3) a review of the Justice Manual’s capital case provisions, including the December 2020 and January 2021 changes to expedite execution of capital sentences. Only the Justice Manual review has been completed, with changes that included removal of the provisions intended to speed federal executions.  

The moratorium on executions has not had any effect on the cases of those currently on federal death row, where the DOJ continues to aggressively defend their death sentences and oppose relief. One new federal death sentence has also been imposed under the Biden Administration.  Robert Bowers was convicted of killing 11 Jewish worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018. His prosecution was initiated under the Trump administration, but the case was prosecuted by the Biden Administration’s DOJ. Similarly, Sayfullo Saipov was also charged during the Trump Administration and prosecuted by the Biden Administration’s DOJ, but he was sentenced to life in prison without parole after a New York federal jury could not agree to sentence him to death. 

After taking office, Attorney General Garland withdrew more than 30 notices of intent to seek the federal death penalty against defendants that had been filed during the Trump Administration. He also decided against seeking a death sentence for Patrick Crusius, who pled guilty to nearly 50 federal hate crime charges in the racially motivated killing of 23 Latinx people and injuring of 22 others in an El Paso, Texas Walmart in August 2019.

But earlier this year, AG Garland authorized the DOJ’s first new death penalty case. The DOJ will seek a federal death sentence for Payton Gendron, the then-18-year-old who killed 10 Black people at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York in 2022. Mr. Gendron, who has already pled guilty to state charges and has been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, is not expected to go to trial in federal court until 2025.