Inmate delays execution through drug-source protest

State officials anxious to carry out prisoner executions are unwilling to disclose their source of hard-to-get sodium thiopental, one component of a lethal three-drug cocktail. But the nondisclosure is having the unintended consequence of causing a delay.

Hospira is the sole U.S. maker of the anesthetic, reports international news agency AFP. Manufacturing issues have depleted supplies and the company doesn't expect to resume production until early 2011. Existing supplies are nearing expiration.

A death row inmate scheduled to die in Arizona argued last week that the drug intended for his execution may be a fake or expired and therefore ineffective or unsafe. Lawyers said that because Hospira is the only FDA-approved U.S. manufacturer, any new thiopental could come only from a foreign country.

Although the state rejected the argument, a federal judge yesterday blocked the execution, saying more time is needed to consider the inmate's challenge. The judge has ordered officials to disclose the drug's source.

In Arizona lethal-injection executions, the prisoner receives sodium thiopental first. Once anesthetized, the prisoner is then given pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, according to the article. Lawyers argued that use of the latter two drugs in the absence of anesthesia would lead to "excruciating pain," in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment.

California also says it has obtained thiopental but refuses to say where it purchased the product.

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