Reprieve calls on Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck to take decisive action as Mississippi becomes the fourth state to seek its pentobarbital to kill

March 24, 2011

Danish manufacturer Lundbeck is under increased pressure today following Mississippi State Attorney General Jim Hood’s announcement that his Department of Corrections would “most likely” be using pentobarbital in upcoming executions.

Recent shortages of the anaesthetic sodium thiopental have already forced prisons in Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio to turn to pentobarbital, abandoning the standard three-drug protocol used by the majority of executing states.

As the only licensed supplier of pentobarbital in the U.S., Danish manufacturer Lundbeck has the power to halt scores of executions by putting in place ‘end-user agreements’ with its customers. These would stop seemingly innocent intermediaries selling Lundbeck’s chemicals on to state penitentiaries, thus preventing Danish drugs from ending up in the veins of condemned prisoners.

The use of pentobarbital in executions is experimental and considered highly dangerous because the drug, a sedative, was not designed for executions and has no clinical history of such use. Mississippi may choose to kill prisoners with a single large dose, as Ohio experimented with earlier this month, or by using the new sedative as a substitute for thiopental, like Texas and Oklahoma. It is not clear if a decision has been made, but Mississippi Department of Corrections spokeswoman Tara Booth implied that state law requires the latter protocol.

The next execution in Mississippi will probably be that of Robert Simon Jr, who has been on death row for 21 years. His appeal to the US Supreme Court was denied on Monday, and the Attorney General has asked the Mississippi Supreme Court for an April 20th execution date.

Reprieve Investigator Maya Foa said:

“Lundbeck have been making all the right noises but thus far have done nothing tangible to stop their products being used to kill. They see themselves as victims when in fact they have been given an extraordinary opportunity: their actions could change the face of the death penalty, putting a long-overdue stop to pharmaceutical complicity in executions.”


Notes for Editors:


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 in executing states to source their drugs from 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.

Reprieve 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 making it illegal to export 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 currently 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 originally 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.

The use of pentobarbital in executions is experimental and considered highly dangerous because the drug, a sedative, was not designed to be used as an anaesthetic. According to Dr. David Waisel, Associate Professor of Anaesthesia at Harvard Medical School: “The use of pentobarbital as an agent to induce anesthesia has no clinical history and is non-standard… the combination of significant unknowns… puts the inmate at risk of serious undue pain and suffering.”

About 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 27 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

Reprieve has represented, and continues to represent, a large number of prisoners who have been rendered and abused around the world, and is conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’


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