British drugs linked with third botched execution as Jeffrey Landrigan is revealed to have died in agony in Arizona

February 20, 2011

A third American prisoner has suffered an excruciating death after an anaesthetic supplied by British drug company Dream Pharma apparently failed during the lethal injection procedure in Arizona.

In a sworn statement for Reprieve’s pending High Court action, lawyer and eyewitness Dale Baich states that Jeffrey Landrigan’s eyes remained open during the lethal injection process. This is a rare phenomenon and a key indicator that the anaesthetic, sodium thiopental, has failed.

Reprieve has now established that all three prisoners executed using Dream Pharma sodium thiopental have kept their eyes open. Emmanuel Hammond and Brandon Rhode in Georgia both appeared awake when they should have been unconscious, while Hammond repeatedly grimaced in pain.

There are increasingly urgent concerns over the efficacy of British sodium thiopental, supplied by a one-man wholesaler operating out of the back of an Acton driving academy. Following last year’s nationwide shortage in the US, Dream Pharma shipped the drug to prisons in Georgia, California, South Carolina, Arkansas and Arizona at dramatically inflated prices. The thiopental was sent via FedEx under uncontrolled conditions despite the fact that the drug degrades at temperatures above 26 degrees Celsius. Experts suggest that either the storage conditions in Acton or the shipping process could be responsible for the drug’s failure.

Reprieve has begun legal proceedings against British pharmaceutical regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA), for refusing to recall all Dream Pharma’s sodium thiopental in the face of clear risk that the drug is faulty. If successful, the case may halt executions in Arizona and many other states indefinitely.

Expert witnesses in the pending legal action have stated that prisoners normally lapse into deep unconsciousness within 10-12 seconds of sodium thiopental reaching their bloodstream. Dr Mark Heath, a consultant anaesthetist at Columbia hospital in New York, states that the prisoner’s eyes should remain closed and his body motionless. If not, this would indicate “an agonising death… asphyxiation caused by pancuronium and the caustic burning sensation caused by potassium would be agonising in the absence of adequate anaesthesia”. Dr Heath’s affidavit states that the recent executions are “highly atypical… based on my studies of lethal injection, it is very unusual and surprising for a prisoner’s eyes to remain open after the efficacious administration of thiopental. One explanation is that thiopental lacked efficacy”. Rev Carroll Pickett, who has attended 95 executions as a prison chaplain in Texas, has said that on the very few occasions when he observed that a prisoner “did not lose consciousness almost immediately… it was due to the thiopental being close to or possibly past its expiration date”.

Three witnesses to the execution of Emanuel Hammond have expressed concern about the process. Professor Sheri Johnson, who watched particularly intently because she knew there were doubts over the British thiopental’s efficacy, said “he closed his eyes perhaps ten seconds after the drugs started. But then, some time later, he opened them again”. Professor Johnson added that this was quite unlike three thiopental executions she had seen before, when the prisoners closed their eyes very quickly and remained “totally still”, apparently in a coma. Josh Green, a reporter with the Gwinnett Daily Post, confirms that Hammond first closed, and then re-opened his eyes some time after receiving the thiopental, while Jill Rand, a Florida nurse who became Hammond’s pen friend, said she saw him move his lips.

Reprieve investigator Maya Foa said: 

“Why does a regulator exist if not to prevent British drugs failing or, worse, causing pain to patients? It is difficult to see how much more evidence the MHRA needs in order to recall a faulty drug. If Dream Pharma’s sodium thiopental is not taken out of circulation, more prisoners are likely to die in agony and the MHRA will bear responsibility for their ordeal.”

For more information please contact Katherine O’Shea at Reprieve’s Press Office katherine.oshea@reprieve.org.uk / 020 7427 1099/ 07931592674.

Notes for Editors:

Background:

In the summer of 2010, the only US manufacturer of execution drug sodium thiopental, Hospira, ceased production of the substance due to a shortage of raw materials, forcing Departments of Corrections in executing states to source their drugs from overseas. Reprieve discovered that a company in Britain was supplying these chemicals and set out to stop British complicity in executions. The approved execution protocol in the United States consists of a cocktail of three drugs: sodium thiopental (also known as thiopental sodium and pentothal) supposedly anaesthetizes the victim, before pancuronium bromide paralyses the muscles and potassium chloride stops the heart.

On 25th October 2010, Jeffrey Landrigan was executed in Arizona using sodium thiopental imported from Britain. The lawyers of Edmund Zagorski, a man who has spent 28 years of his life on death row in Tennessee, subsequently contacted Reprieve with the information that the Tennessee Department of Corrections was seeking to purchase their own supply of sodium thiopental from the same company. Reprieve and lawyers Leigh Day & Co contacted members of the government, asking them to put in place emergency measures to prevent the export of the chemical, and thus stay Edmund’s execution. Business Secretary Vince Cable and Jeremy Browne MP on behalf of the FCO declined to take such a step.

Reprieve therefore filed for judicial review of the government’s failure to prevent British complicity in executions. Counsel for the government initially argued that it was not worth imposing an export ban as executing states would source their sodium thiopental from elsewhere, but on 29th November Vince Cable finally agreed to put in place a system of controls making it illegal to export sodium thiopental from the UK to the US.

Shortly afterwards, Reprieve discovered that the British company responsible was Dream Pharma, a tiny pharmaceutical wholesalers operating out of the back of a driving academy in Acton, and that it had already exported a substantial quantity of sodium thiopental – as well as the other two lethal injection chemicals – before the ban came into force. We asked Matt Alavi, the Managing Director of Dream Pharma, for his help in mitigating the damage done by his quest for profit; he had been selling sodium thiopental for between six and twelve times its recommended price, knowing that it was to be used in lethal injections. Mr Alavi refused, and the drugs he supplied have already been used to kill three people: Brandon Rhode and Emanuel Hammond in Georgia, as well as Jeffrey Landrigan.

Disturbingly, it seems that Dream Pharma’s sodium thiopental may not have been properly effective as an anaesthetic, and that Brandon and Emanuel may therefore have been in agony during their executions. Dr Mark Heath, a renowned lethal injection expert, filed a sworn declaration stating that the fact that Brandon’s eyes remained open throughout his execution was highly unusual and strongly suggested that he was not properly anaesthetized and therefore conscious throughout the process. He also wrote that:“…if the thiopental was inadequately effective Mr Rhode’s death would certainly have been agonizing; there is no dispute that the asphyxiation caused by pancuronium and the caustic burning sensation caused by potassium would be agonizing in the absence of adequate anesthesia.”Reprieve is currently asking Business Secretary Vince Cable to put in place strict measures regulating the export of pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride from the UK. We are also asking the governments of Austria and Germany, where sodium thiopental and its active ingredients are still manufactured, to follow Britain in imposing a full export ban on the drug. Hospira, which originally intended to begin manufacturing sodium thiopental destined for American penitentiaries in an Italian factory, announced in January that it would be ceasing all production of the drug. This was largely a consequence of Reprieve’s action, in particular a press conference in Rome in early December.

About Reprieve:

Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives. Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 27 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

Reprieve has represented, and continues to represent, a large number of prisoners who have been rendered and abused around the world, and is conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

Reprieve PO Box 52742 London EC4P 4WS Tel: 020 7353 4640 Fax: 020 7353 4641 Email: info@reprieve.org.uk Website: www.reprieve.org.uk

Reprieve is a charitable company limited by guarantee; Registered Charity No. 1114900 Registered Company No. 5777831 (England) Registered Office 2-6 Cannon Street London EC4M 6YH; Chair: Lord Ken Macdonald QC; Patrons: Alan Bennett, Julie Christie, Martha Lane Fox, Gordon Roddick, Jon Snow, Marina Warner