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Nebraska: Feds say no to execution drug

State officials said Wednesday they are seeking a new supply of a controversial lethal-injection drug after determining that they probably can't use drugs obtained from an Indian pharmaceutical company.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informed state corrections officials in early April that Nebraska lacked authority to import controlled substances such as sodium thiopental, a powerful sedative used in lethal-injection executions.

That led corrections officials and the Nebraska Attorney General's Office to decide that the state should obtain the proper import permits and seek a new source of the drug to carry out the death penalty.

The problem with the Indian drug purchase raises the prospect of further delays in the execution of double-murderer Carey Dean Moore.

Moore, 53, was sentenced to die for the execution-style murders of two Omaha cab drivers in 1979, but he has won several stays of that sentence over the years.

Attorney General Jon Bruning asked the Nebraska Supreme Court in January to set a new execution date. On April 21 [--] 10 days after the state learned of DEA's problem with the sodium thiopental the high court set a June 14 execution date for Moore.

But the execution was stayed May 25 after Moore's attorneys raised questions about the quality of the drug Nebraska obtained from Kayem Pharmaceuticals of Mumbai, India.

Moore's attorney, Jerry Soucie, said he was very concerned that the Attorney General's Office did not disclose the drug problem earlier as it was seeking to execute his client.

“I find that to be the most troubling aspect of this case,” Soucie said.

David Cookson, chief deputy attorney general, said his office didn't believe such disclosure was necessary.

Cookson said the office was confident the state would either obtain a new supply of sodium thiopental or be able to rectify the problem with the drugs it bought from India in January.

“As a result, we had nothing to inform the court,” he said. “We felt we were in a position to have the drugs."

Moore would be the first in Nebraska to die by lethal injection, the method adopted by the Legislature in 2009. That followed a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling that declared the electric chair unconstitutional.

When the high court stayed Moore's execution in May, Cookson said the state had abandoned efforts to make its current supply of sodium thiopental legally usable.

Instead, the focus was to have the Department of Corrections obtain federal authority to import such controlled substances.

Cookson said there are several overseas sources for the drug, which is no longer manufactured in the United States.

A spokeswoman for the Corrections Department said the agency now possesses a federal drug import permit and is seeking a new source of the drugs.

Dawn Renee Smith, the spokeswoman, said no decision has been made about what to do with the drugs purchased from India in January. Smith said the DEA has said they could be destroyed by the state crime lab if necessary.

Nebraska becomes the latest state to relinquish its supply of sodium thiopental obtained overseas.

In March, DEA officials seized Georgia's supply of the drug due to questions about how it had been imported. Georgia's supply came from Britain.

Tennessee and Kentucky also have turned over their supplies to federal officials.

Sodium thiopental is a fast-acting sedative that is the first of three drugs administered in an execution. Its use is controversial.

The last U.S. manufacturer quit making it earlier this year, setting off a scramble among states that utilize lethal injection.

Nebraska and at least 6 other states went overseas to obtain the drug. Other states switched to a different sedative [--] phenobarbital, a drug commonly used by veterinarians to euthanize animals to carry out executions.

Soucie has questioned whether the India company was properly registered to export drugs and whether Nebraska violated federal laws on importing controlled substances.

He and other death-penalty opponents also question whether the Indian drugs were a generic version that does not meet U.S. pharmaceutical standards, thus risking unnecessary pain in an execution.

In a June 9 court filing, Soucie included the contents of an email from the Kansas City, Mo., office of the DEA indicating that Nebraska officials were told on April 11 [--] 3 months after obtaining the drugs from India that the Department of Corrections “was not accepted” for the importation of such controlled substances.

The email indicated that George Green, an attorney for the state agency, was told how to apply for valid “importer registration."

Cookson said that once his office learned of DEA's concerns, it reached out to federal officials to determine if the Indian drugs could somehow be used, or if the state needed to obtain permits to obtain a new supply.

Eventually, the decision was made to seek a new supply, he said.

Source: Omaha World-Herald, June 19, 2011
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