Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan on Friday blamed clerical errors by employees of a local import broker and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for misstating on federal documents that the agency was importing animal drugs to execute murderers.
In an exclusive interview, Ryan also told The Arizona Republic that after upcoming Arizona executions on Tuesday and April 5, the department will consider retooling the state’s lethal-injection method to use a single drug instead of the current three-drug method that depends on an anesthetic that is no longer available.
Ryan reacted to a Republic report Thursday about two drugs, sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide, which were imported from England for an Arizona execution in October and for the two upcoming executions.
FDA documents that U.S. Customs and Border Protection use to approve imports stated that the drugs were for animal use, raising questions as to whether they were being carried out with animal drugs or if the imports had been misidentified.
“The chemicals employed in the execution, then and now, and what we possess, are only for the purpose of human consumption,” Ryan said. “It has nothing to do with animals.”
Ryan ordered an investigation into the misrepresentation Friday morning, and the private import broker retained by the department took responsibility for the drugs being misidentified. Ryan pointed out that correspondence between his department and the federal agencies clearly stated that the drugs were to be used for inmate executions.
In an e-mail made available to The Republic, Robert Hornyan of Phoenix-based Arizona Customs Brokers claimed that an employee at his company mistakenly entered an incorrect code on a computer-generated import form while consulting with a local FDA official.
That shipment of the anesthetic thiopental and the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide arrived Sept. 28, identified on the FDA form as “(Anesthetic); Animal (Food Producing)” and “(Relaxant); Animal (Food Producing).”
A shipment of thiopental to the state Corrections Department a month later had the same description as an animal drug, however.
Under federal statutes, filing false federal documents is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. An FDA spokeswoman said the agency could investigate incorrect filings and potentially pursue civil or criminal sanctions.
As in most states that use lethal injection as a method of execution, the Arizona protocol calls for an injection of thiopental, a barbiturate, to sedate the condemned man or woman, followed by pancuronium bromide to render the person motionless. Then, potassium chloride is injected to stop the heart.
If the thiopental sedation were to wear off too quickly, the condemned would suffer the effects of the other two drugs. Defense attorneys in several states have filed appeals and lawsuits questioning whether the imported drugs, which have not been evaluated by the FDA, meet medical standards.
Thiopental has not been produced in the U.S. since 2009, and supplies began to run out last spring, forcing states to begin researching imports from abroad.
Until now, Arizona officials would not divulge how they obtained the drug, though defense attorneys and news reports revealed details, including the English pharmaceutical-supply house that was exporting the drug until British authorities banned further exports for executions.
Ryan said that he initially canvassed other prison systems looking for the drug, “but the well was dry.”
Then, he learned that Arkansas had found a source in the United Kingdom. The Corrections Department notified the FDA, customs and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to arrange for the import, Ryan said. Despite FDA statements last fall and winter that there were no approved foreign sources for the drug, Deputy Corrections Director Charles Flanagan said, “We were never advised that the drugs were not allowed or that we could not import them.”
“The FDA always told us there was a mechanism to bring the drugs in,” Flanagan said. “We have never, ever heard from anyone in the FDA, the DEA, customs or any other agency that we cannot import these drugs. In fact, we would not even have begun the process if we could not import these drugs.”
Shipments of thiopental for other states were stopped and detained in Memphis, where FedEx has its hub, some for as long as several months, FDA documents show.
E-mails obtained by The Republic show Arizona corrections officials worked with a local FDA official to have their first batch processed by customs officials in Phoenix instead of Memphis. That shipment sailed through.
Ryan and Flanagan said that it was inspected by a department deputy warden and pharmacist when it arrived in Phoenix to ensure it was human-grade and acceptable.
The second shipment was sent directly from London to Phoenix by a different carrier on Oct. 26 – the same day Jeffrey Landrigan was executed using the first batch – but the FDA forced the Corrections Department to hold it until mid-January as it considered its policies on imports for executions.
Some states with three-drug protocols have already switched to another barbiturate, pentobarbital, a drug similar to what is used to euthanize animals, as a substitute for thiopental.
Ohio uses a single drug to execute its death-row prisoners, and since thiopental became unavailable, switched to pentobarbital. The one-drug protocol sidesteps defense-attorney claims that the executed people could suffer the effects of the other drugs.
“After these two executions, we’re looking at going to another protocol,” Ryan said. “I’m thinking of a one-drug protocol. Or, if it remains a three-drug protocol, it would be substituting (thiopental) with another barbiturate.”