States Engage in "Swap Club" to Obtain Lethal Injection Drugs

In what was described in the New York Times as a “legally quesionable swap club,” states searching for a scarce execution drug have gone to great lengths to obtain sodium thiopental for carrying out their death sentences. In Arkansas, a deputy director of the Department of Corrections revealed that states often shared their supply of sodium thiopental with each other. Wendy Kelly, who has personally traveled to obtain drugs from other states, said, “I went wherever they had them. As best as I’m aware, the agreement my director had with other directors, any time there was an exchange, was that there would be a payback when needed.” Arkansas gave the drug to Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee free of charge, and obtained the drug from Texas. Last September, Arizona ordered a shipment of lethal injection drugs from overseas and worked closely with U.S. Customs and the Food and Drug Administration to prevent the shipment from being delayed at the border. The shipments were labeled as being for veterinary use, perhaps to avoid tighter scrutiny.

Dale Baich, a federal public defender in Arizona said, “Based upon our review of documents released by federal agencies, it appears that there was a culture of premeditated deception. Someone came up with a plan to bypass the process that would have stopped the drugs at the border.” Arizona denied any wrongdoing. Criminal justice expert Douglas A. Berman of Ohio State University said the recent legal challenges concerning lethal injection drugs are more than an inconvenience to the process. “This mess is a speed bump, but one that does raise serious issues about the death penalty.” Recently, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized lethal injection drugs that were obtained from overseas by Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

(J. Schwartz, “Seeking Execution Drug, States Cut Legal Corners,” New York Times, April 14, 2011). See International and Lethal Injection.