A restraining table inside the death chamber at the new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in California. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP
British companies have secretly supplied two previously undisclosed lethal injection drugs for executing American prisoners, provoking calls for an immediate export ban on the whole cocktail of drugs used on death row.
Documents from American authorities reveal that potassium chloride and pancuronium bromide have been exported. Until now it was thought that only one execution drug, sodium thiopental, was being supplied by a British company. When news of that chemical’s export to America surfaced, it caused such condemnation that the business secretary, Vince Cable, unveiled new export controls on the drug forbidding its use in executions.
Now new documents from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) show that at least one British firm has been providing it with all the drugs it uses as part of a three-drug cocktail in lethal injection executions.
Inmates on death row are initially injected with sodium thiopental, which is capable of inducing unconsciousness in a few seconds. Then pancuronium bromide is administered, causing paralysis of respiratory muscles, before potassium chloride is given, which stops the inmate’s heart, causing death by cardiac arrest. Opponents argue that the effect of dilution or the improper administration of thiopental is that the inmate dies an agonising death through suffocation due to the paralytic effects of pancuronium bromide and the intense burning sensation caused by potassium chloride.
Campaigners were demanding last night that Cable ban the export of pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride to the US, claiming that assisting state executions contravenes the government’s commitment to the global abolition of the death penalty.
Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve, which campaigns against the death penalty, said: “The UK has been providing California with all three of its execution drugs. It is vital that Cable imposes export controls on the other two drugs as well.”
Arizona used sodium thiopental made in Britain to execute an inmate in October. Britain’s wider role in facilitating America’s death penalty comes as the US copes with a national shortage of the drugs used in lethal injections. On Friday, Oklahoma circumvented the problem by killing a death-row inmate with a drug cocktail that included a sedative usually used to put down animals.
The documents also reveal that California has imported a massive batch of sodium thiopental. It ordered 521g of sodium thiopental, made by Berkshire-based Archimedes Pharma, before the British government announced the new export controls three weeks ago. The CDCR said it had bought the drug through a distributor for $36,415 (£23,000), not directly from Archimedes Pharma, which denies exporting the chemical. It means that California has bought enough sodium thiopental to kill 85 people.
A number of British people are on death row in the state including Kenny Gay, 50, from Swindon. He has faced execution in California for 25 years after being convicted of killing a Los Angeles police officer.
Emails from the Arizona authorities to the CDCR have also caused anger among campaigners. “The shipment [was] processed expeditiously to us as it was for the purpose of executions and not for use by general public,” said an Arizona official.