High Court hears second day of arguments in execution drug export case

November 22, 2010

***Hearing begins 10am in Court 2, Royal Courts of Justice; court documents below***

Reprieve and UK lawyers Leigh Day & Co are today in the High Court seeking to prevent further exports to the United States of sodium thiopental, a drug used in lethal injections.

Representing two clients on death row in the US, Edmund Zagorski and Ralph Baze, Leigh Day will be arguing that Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business Innovation & Skills, is wrong to refuse to place export controls on sodium thiopental.

The British government is expected to argue its case today.

Notes for Editors:


The US has recently run short of Sodium Thiopental, one of the drugs used in the execution protocol. On Monday 25th October, Jeffery Landrigan was executed in Arizona using drugs supplied by a British company – despite a plea for clemency from the judge who sentenced him to death. The Arizona consignment was sufficient for four executions, so the British company will contribute to three more deaths there.

Soon afterwards, the American lawyers for Edmund Zagorski contacted Reprieve with a plea for help: Tennessee was seeking to purchase the drugs to kill Mr Zagorski, apparently from the same British company. On Thursday 28th October, Reprieve and Leigh Day contacted the Government and asked for emergency measures to be taken to avoid British complicity in Mr Zagorski’s execution.

All it would take to prevent the death of Mr Zagorski and others would be for Vince Cable to issue an emergency order regulating its export. On Monday, November 1st, Mr. Cable responded that the British government would take no such step, because if the US did not get the drug from the UK it would just go elsewhere. Mr. Cable also said he was unwilling to interfere unnecessarily in US-UK trade. On behalf of the FCO, Jeremy Browne took the same line.

On Tuesday 2nd November, lawyers with Leigh Day & Co. filed a judicial review application of the Government’s refusal to lift a hand to prevent British complicity in a series of American executions.

The case is particularly urgent because Mr Zagorski’s lawyers have learned that the Sodium Thiopental has not been shipped to Tennessee yet but may leave any day: the anonymous “Sales Agreement”, dated September 30, 2010, indicates that the shipment may take place in November. Ed Zagorski is scheduled to die on 11th January 2011.

Sodium thiopental is one of cocktail of three drugs prescribed for use in lethal injections by US states which retain the death penalty. Sodium thiopental is supposed to anaesthetise the victim before pancuronium bromide is used to paralyse the victim and finally potassium chloride is used to induce a heart attack.

Sodium thiopental is bona fide anaesthetic and is included in the WHO list of essential medicines. However, it is old and has largely been superseded by more modern and efficacious drugs in western countries. Its use in the United States, other than for lethal injections, is confined to a few residual specialist areas. The only producer of the drug in the United States, Hospira, had ceased production due to a shortage of raw ingredients. Hospira has also publicly stated that it did not support the use of its product in lethal injections.