Documents posted last night by the ACLU of Northern California shed light on California’s frenzied scramble for lethal injection drugs and the odd profession of being in charge of obtaining such drugs. The documents, products of a Public Records Act lawsuit filed by the organization in November, indicate that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation started worrying about its supply of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic used to put an inmate to sleep before administering lethal drugs, in August.
In May, Hospira, the sole US manufacturer of the drug announced they were short raw materials to make the drug and wouldn’t be able to produce it in the near future. At the time, there hadn’t been an execution scheduled in California since 2006. Nevertheless, CDCR officials were on the lookout for supplies of the execution drug–a search that would eventually take them through Texas, Arizona, England, and Pakistan.
On August 23, Scott Kernan, undersecretary of operations at CDCR emailed Secretary Matt Cate and Benjamin Rice, CDCR’s general counsel:
“I just got great news. [Name redacted] advised that he has got and is shipping the lethal injection drugs to SQ pharmacy. Its enough to do one execution. Bad news is the drug expires in Oct. But at least we would be ready. He is still looking for more. Matt, would be nice for you to call and thank them.”
On August 30, Riverside district attorneys asked for and were granted a death warrant for Albert Greenwood Brown, a death row inmate whose appeals have been exhausted. An execution was scheduled for September 28, two days before the state’s supply of sodium thiopental expired.
On the execution day, Charles Flannigan, deputy director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, emailed CDCR officials and told them that Arizona had obtained sodium thiopental from a company in London. “Frankly, there was no possibility of getting the Thiopental Sodium/Sodium Pentothal from any source in the U.S.” The email went on to detail the speediest way to get sodium thiopental from abroad through the customs and DEA process.
Legal delays brought about by ongoing lawsuits over California’s execution method forced the CDCR to push back the execution date further to the evening of September 30, about three hours before the drugs expired. September 29 saw a flurry of activity as corrections officials brainstormed how to get additional stocks of the drug to California before their existing supplies expired.
Early on September 29, Kernan received this email from a person whose name was redacted, attaching a newspaper article titled, “Texas well stocked with lethal injection drugs:”
“It is unfortunate that Texas would not share some of it’s ‘well stocked’ supply to help sister states but down the road they may need help in some other way and this position does not help their image. Nevertheless, in the prison business things are always changing and Texas is no exception. Sorry we were not able to help more.”
Later that morning, Kernan contacted Arizona corrections and asked them to lend California 12 grams of sodium thiopental and told officials there that California would order more from the London supplier.
And at about 4pm: Scott Kernan emailed Assistant Secretary Anthony Chaus:
“May have a secret and important mission for you. Not sure you are following, but we are unable to do the execution because nationwide we have been unable to procure one of the three drugs needed. The quantity we currently have expires 10/1/10. So, out of the blue I find some from AZ. I might need one of your So Cal guys to go to Florence, AZ and pick up a quantity of the drug and drive it to SQ. Not asking you to do anything just yet, will let you know. Could you handle something like this”
The reply came minutes later: “Absolutely. Give me the green light and it will be done very discreetly.”
At 5pm, Kernan sent an email thanking Arizona officials for their help: “You guys in AZ are life-savers. By you a beer next time I get that way.”
A few minutes later, Chaus sent Kernan an email recommending that two CDCR agents fly to Phoenix, drive to a prison in Florence, obtain the drugs from the warden there, fly back to Southern California, and hand off the drugs to two different agents who would then drive to San Quentin.
On Thursday morning, Kernan received another email from Claus: “They are about 15 minutes from the prison.” Presumably, the drugs were delivered shortly after. But they weren’t used. Late in the afternoon on September 29, a court stayed Brown’s execution, and the state withdrew its execution warrant.