Mysteries of the death-drug scramble - Page 2

The strange tale of how California prison officials pulled out all the stops to acquire a lethal injection chemical


As the clock ticked down toward that expiration date, the documents show, CDCR officials — all the way up to Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate — were involved in an all-out scramble to get more of the drug.

At one point, a Sept. 16 e-mail — from an official whose name is blacked out — notes that CDCR had contacted between 80 and 100 hospitals to try to buy some sodium thiopental, but "none of them have a drop."

The documents note that CDCR officials even suggested that there were supplies of sodium thiopental in Pakistan. An Aug. 17 e-mail from John McAuliffe, a contract worker helping CDCR with executions, says the agency is trying to get federal government approval to import the drug.

One e-mail even suggests that an unnamed CDCR employee was in the area and could make a side trip to Pakistan to pick up the stuff.



There are, of course, serious issues with importing controlled substances into the United States, and the documents show efforts by CDCR to get the DEA to approve imports. The Pakistan deal apparently went nowhere — but later e-mails show CDCR officials contacting a supplier in London. The name of the supplier is blacked out on all the documents, but CDCR's deputy press secretary, Terry Thornton, later confirmed that the manufacturer was Archimedes Pharma.

Immediately after the California order for 521 grams of sodium thiopental went through, Britain's secretary of state for business, Vince Cable, issued an order barring any further exports of the drug for use in executions.

Like most of the civilized world, the United Kingdom does not allow the death penalty.

In the meantime, Scott Kernan, CDCR's undersecretary for operations, was trying to get enough of the death drug domestically to carry out at least one execution. A series of e-mails show contacts between California and Arizona, which recently had imported its own supply — and there are indications that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was willing to call his counterpart in Arizona to help consummate the deal.

"I'm sure either the secretary or even the governor could make a call," a Sept. 9 e-mail from Kernan to McAuliffe notes.

Then on Sept. 29, Kernan sent an e-mail to Assistant Secretary Anthony Chaus discussing a "secret and important mission." Kernan wanted Chaus to send a team to a state prison complex in Florence, Ariz., a desert town about 40 miles southeast of Phoenix, to pick up 12 grams of the death drug.

At midnight Sept. 30, the warden in Florence gave the CDCD agents 24 vials, each containing half a gram of sodium thiopental. The agents drove it to Bakersfield, where another team picked up the vials and drove the rest of the way to San Quentin.

In a stomach-turning e-mail, Kernan sent a note Sept. 29 to an unnamed Arizona official saying "you guys in Arizona are life savers" and offering to "by [sic] you a beer next time I get that way."

By then, a federal judge had delayed Brown's execution until 2011.

Among the most startling revelation was the sheer quantity of sodium thiopental California eventually ordered from the firm in London. Even with training supplies and backup, it only takes between six and 12 grams of sodium thiopental to render a prisoner unconscious — meaning that the 521 grams that CDCR purchased for $36,413 are enough to kill between 43 and 86 people. The expiration date on the chemical is 2014.

It's highly unlikely, given the legal hurdles and time involved in even one execution, that California would schedule more than three over the next three years. What possible use could the state have for so much death drug?