10/23/2015 18:55 EDT | Updated 10/23/2016 01:12 EDT

Feds confiscate lethal-injection drugs obtained overseas by Arizona and Texas

TUCSON, Ariz. — Compounding the nation's severe shortage of execution drugs, federal authorities have confiscated shipments of a lethal-injection chemical that Arizona and Texas tried to bring in from abroad, saying such imports are illegal.

The Food and Drug Administration said Friday that it impounded orders of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that has been used in past executions in combination with drugs that paralyze the muscles and stop the heart. It currently has no legal uses in the U.S.

"Courts have concluded that sodium thiopental for the injection in humans is an unapproved drug and may not be imported into the country," FDA spokesman Jeff Ventura said in a statement.

Arizona paid nearly $27,000 for the sodium thiopental, but federal agents intercepted it when it arrived via British Airways at the Phoenix airport in July, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Texas and FDA authorities gave fewer details about the seizure there. Texas is the nation's busiest death penalty state, with about 250 death row inmates and 530 executions carried out over the past four decades. But it has not been using sodium thiopental in recent years.

The shortage of execution chemicals has become more acute over the past few years, ever since European companies started refusing to sell them to the U.S. Death penalty states have been scrambling to secure supplies, a search that in at least one case has taken them to India and a forlorn-looking business in a residential neighbourhood.

States have had to change drug combinations or put executions on hold while they look for other options. Tennessee brought back the electric chair as a backup method, and Utah did the same with the firing squad.

Other states have also looked into buying drugs from international pharmacies.

Ohio, which has halted executions until at least 2017 because of a lack of drugs, sent a letter earlier this month to the FDA asserting that the state believes it can obtain a lethal-injection drug overseas without violating any laws.

Nebraska ran afoul of the FDA earlier this year when the agency said it could not legally import sodium thiopental and a second lethal-injection chemical it had bought for $54,400 from Harris Pharma, a distributor in India. That shipment apparently never made it to the United States.

"Just wanted to let you know have a few states who have already ordered sodium thiopental. Would Nebraska be interested as I will have a few thousand vials extra," Chris Harris, CEO of Harris Pharma, wrote in April to Nebraska officials, who released the correspondence under a public records request.

Harris did not name those states, and no one answered the door at the residential address in Kolkata, India, that is listed as the firm's office.

Key details are blacked out of the Arizona documents, which were released as part of a lawsuit against the corrections department over transparency in executions, and it is not clear what country or company the state was doing business with.

But, down to the font and formatting, the paperwork for the purchase resembles the Nebraska paperwork involving Harris Pharma.

A lawyer who has challenged Texas' death row practices questioned why any state would want to run the risk of a botched execution by buying drugs from an overseas supplier whose manufacturing standards are not well known.

"We have no idea what we're getting. None. It could be water. It could be witch hazel. It could be white vinegar," Maurie Levin said. "We literally have no idea."

Officials in Arizona said they believe the impounded drugs there are legal.

"The department is contesting FDA's legal authority to continue to withhold the state's execution chemicals," Corrections Department spokesman Andrew Wilder said.

In Texas, the Department of Criminal Justice said it went through proper channels, obtaining an import license from the Drug Enforcement Administration and notifying FDA and Customs. Department spokesman Jason Clark said the state is now awaiting a decision from the FDA on the legal status of the imports.

Executions have been put on hold in Arizona since the drawn-out death in July 2014 of Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend and her father. Wood snorted repeatedly throughout the 90 minutes it took him to die.

Authorities later revealed he was given 15 doses of midazolam and a painkiller. He was supposed to die with one dose.

Arizona announced Friday it is adding another drug combination and making executions more transparent for reporters and inmate attorneys.

The current protocols, last updated in March 2014, eliminated the midazolam and hydromorphone combination used in Wood's execution. It added pentobarbital, sodium thiopental and midazolam with potassium chloride and saline as three options. Now, a fourth option would allow the state to use a mix that includes vecuronium bromide.

The state also announced it's seeking to resume a federal lawsuit filed by a group of death row inmates, including Wood. The lawsuit was filed in June 2014, but both parties agreed to put it on hold. The state can't seek execution warrants until that lawsuit is resolved.

Arizona has 118 death row inmates. It has said it doesn't plan on seeking any death warrants until it resolves a lawsuit originally filed by Wood and other condemned prisoners seeking information about the drugs used in executions.

"Once again, the Arizona Department of Corrections is trying to skirt the law in order to get execution drugs. Nobody is above the law, and that includes the Arizona Department of Corrections," said Wood's attorney, Dale Baich.


Pritchard reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Matthew Perrone in Washington, Michael Graczyk in Houston, Manik Banerjee in Kolkata, India, and Margery Beck in Omaha, Nebraska, contributed to this report.


Contact Justin Pritchard at .

Astrid Galvan And Justin Pritchard, The Associated Press