Lethal drugs trade: press conference and parliamentary hearing today

February 14, 2011

Lord Ken Macdonald will chair an evidence hearing with the family of Brandon Rhode, who was executed with apparently faulty British drugs, and Dr Mark Heath, the leading US expert on lethal injections, at 10am today; press conference will follow.

Public Hearing: 10am Tuesday 15th February, Jubilee Room, Houses of Parliament. Press and public welcome; please print this invitation for admission

Press Conference: 11am Tuesday 15th February, Jubilee Room, Houses of Parliament


Baroness Vivien Stern (Host)

Lord Ken Macdonald QC (Chair)

Patches Rhode, mother of Brandon Rhode who was executed with British drugs in Georgia in Sep 2010

Joshua Ladner, brother of Brandon Rhode

Dr Mark Heath, Assistant Professor of Anaesthesiology, Columbia University and leading expert in lethal injection

Tony Garlick, Technical Director of the British Association of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers

Brenda Coleman, Partner, Weil Gotshal & Manges

Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve

The All Party Parliamentary Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty will hear evidence at 10am this Tuesday from the mother and brother of Brandon Rhode, who was executed last year with drugs imported from the UK. Also testifying will be Dr Mark Heath, the leading expert on US lethal injection procedures. He is expected to say that Brandon Rhode’s eyes remained open during his execution and suggest the British drugs — obtained from one-man wholesaler ‘Dream Pharma’ operating out of the back of an Action driving school– were defective.

The first hour will be an All Party Parliamentary Group hearing, which is open to press and the public; please bring this invitation. From 11am the panel will take questions from the press and members of the public. The hearing will be hosted by Baroness Vivien Stern, APPG chair, and chaired by Lord Ken Macdonald QC, former Director of Public Prosecutions and APPG Vice Chair.

If you are able to join us, please RSVP to Helen Fair on 020 7332 2638 or Helen.fair@kcl.ac.uk.

Notes for editors:

Background on Brandon Rhode:

Brandon Rhode was just 18 years old when he participated in the crime for which he was ultimately executed: the shooting of three people during a burglary. Brandon was mentally handicapped, and was functioning at a considerably younger level than his age in terms of his ability to control impulses and appreciate consequences. He had been drinking alcohol since the age of 11, and by the age of 13 was abusing alcohol and drugs regularly – his biological father, with whom Brandon lived after dropping out of school at the age of 15, was also a drug addict and an alcoholic. Brandon’s limited mental capacity was presented as mitigating evidence during his appeals, but the courts were unmoved.

Brandon was executed in Georgia shortly after 10pm on Tuesday 28th September 2010. The execution had originally been scheduled for 7pm the previous Tuesday, but just hours before it was due to be carried out, Brandon attempted suicide by slashing his neck and arms, terrified of the painful death by lethal injection that awaited him. Although he was supposedly on suicide watch, a prison guard had provided him with a disposable razor and neglected to remove it from his cell.

His medical records show that Brandon’s self-inflicted wounds were so severe that he lost at least half the blood in his body and suffered haemorrhagic shock, but medical personnel managed to ‘save’ his life by repeatedly shocking his heart. He had caused such damage to the blood vessels in his arms that an IV had to be inserted into his neck. When Brandon was returned to prison, the IV port was left in place so that the lethal injection could be administered in the same site.

After his suicide attempt, Brandon was tightly restrained in a chair for seven days, bound at his chest, arms and legs and shackled. He was forced to spend almost 24 hours a day sitting upright in bright light and constant noise, permitted just ten minutes each day to walk around. When he needed to eat, one of his hands was released for five minutes. In an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court, Brandon’s attorney Brian Kammer stated that when he met with his client at this time, “Brandon indicated that he was in severe pain and discomfort amounting to torture”. He was cycling in and out of a dissociative state, and although he may well have suffered further brain damage as a result of his substantial blood loss, no neuropsychological testing was performed.

Despite the fact that, under the circumstances described, Brandon’s execution clearly constituted cruel and unusual punishment, he was not granted a second stay of execution in order for his mental competency to be properly assessed. Even more disturbingly, a witness to the execution testified that Brandon’s eyes remained open throughout the process, a clear sign that the anaesthetic sodium thiopental (the first of the three drugs administered in the lethal injection protocol) was not effective. Dr Mark Heath, a renowned lethal injection expert, has stated that “if the thiopental was inadequately effective Mr Rhode’s death would certainly have been agonizing; there is no dispute that the asphyxiation caused by pancuronium and the caustic burning sensation caused by potassium would be agonizing in the absence of adequate anesthesia”. For a crime he had committed as a teenager, and after having spent a third of his life on death row, it seems Brandon Rhode’s worst fears about dying in pain were realized.

Background on lethal injection drugs:

In the summer of 2010, the only US manufacturer of execution drug sodium thiopental, Hospira, ceased production of the substance due to a shortage of raw materials, forcing Departments of Corrections to source their execution drugs overseas. Reprieve discovered that a company in Britain was supplying these chemicals and set out to stop British complicity in executions.

The approved execution protocol in the United States consists of a cocktail of three drugs: sodium thiopental (also known as thiopental sodium and pentothal) supposedly anaesthetizes the victim, before pancuronium bromide paralyses the muscles and potassium chloride stops the heart.

On 25th October 2010, Jeffrey Landrigan was executed in Arizona using sodium thiopental imported from Britain. The lawyers of Edmund Zagorski, a man who has spent 28 years of his life on death row in Tennessee, subsequently contacted Reprieve with the information that the Tennessee Department of Corrections was seeking to purchase their own supply of sodium thiopental from the same company. Reprieve and lawyers Leigh Day & Co contacted members of the government, asking them to put in place emergency measures to prevent the export of the chemical, and thus stay Edmund’s execution. Business Secretary Vince Cable and Jeremy Browne MP on behalf of the FCO declined to take such a step. We therefore filed for judicial review of the government’s failure to prevent British complicity in executions. Counsel for the government initially argued that it was not worth imposing an export ban as executing states would source their sodium thiopental from elsewhere, but on 29th November Vince Cable finally agreed to put in place a system of controls over the export of sodium thiopental from the UK to the US.

Shortly afterwards, Reprieve discovered that the British company responsible was Dream Pharma, a tiny pharmaceutical wholesalers operating out of the back of a driving academy in Acton, and that it had already exported a substantial quantity of sodium thiopental – as well as the other two lethal injection chemicals – before the ban came into force. We asked Matt Alavi, the Managing Director of Dream Pharma, for his help in mitigating the damage done by his quest for profit; he had been selling sodium thiopental for between six and twelve times its recommended price, knowing that it was to be used in lethal injections. Mr Alavi refused, and the drugs he supplied have already been used to kill three people: Brandon Rhode and Emanuel Hammond in Georgia, as well as Jeffrey Landrigan.

Disturbingly, it seems that Dream Pharma’s sodium thiopental may not have been properly effective as an anaesthetic, and that Brandon and Emanuel may therefore have been in agony during their executions. Dr Mark Heath, a renowned lethal injection expert, filed a sworn declaration stating that the fact that Brandon’s eyes remained open throughout his execution was highly unusual and strongly suggested that he was not properly anaesthetized and therefore conscious throughout the process. He also wrote that:

“…if the thiopental was inadequately effective Mr Rhode’s death would certainly have been agonizing; there is no dispute that the asphyxiation caused by pancuronium and the caustic burning sensation caused by potassium would be agonizing in the absence of adequate anesthesia.”

Reprieve is asking Business Secretary Vince Cable to put in place strict measures regulating the export of pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride from the UK. We are also asking the governments of Austria and Germany, where sodium thiopental and its active ingredients are still manufactured, to follow Britain in imposing a full export ban on the drug.

Hospira, which intended to begin manufacturing sodium thiopental destined for American penitentiaries in an Italian factory,announced in January that it would be ceasing all production of the drug. This was a direct consequence of Reprieve’s work, in particular a very successful press conference in Rome in early December.

Background on Reprieve:

Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives. Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

Reprieve’s current casework involves representing prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, working on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’


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London EC4P 4WS

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Email: info@reprieve.org.uk

Website: www.reprieve.org.uk

Reprieve is a charitable company limited by guarantee; Registered Charity No. 1114900 Registered Company No. 5777831 (England) Registered Office 2-6 Cannon Street London EC4M 6YH; Patrons: Alan Bennett, Julie Christie, Martha Lane Fox, Gordon Roddick, Jon Snow, Marina Warner