US Judge Leon blocks all imports of key execution drug sodium thiopental

March 28, 2012

Image of drugs

A federal judge yesterday banned the import of a key anaesthetic used in lethal injections, in a major blow to US execution chambers desperate for supplies.

In a highly critical judgment in Beaty v FDA, Judge Richard Leon condemned the poorly-regulated importation of dubious sodium thiopental from Britain and ordered that foreign-manufactured versions of the drug should no longer be allowed into the country.

US execution chambers had turned in desperation to a number of overseas suppliers, including Dream Pharma, a one-man operation above a driving school in Acton, West London, after domestic production of sodium thiopental ceased.

Judge Leon was particularly scathing about the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s failure to carry out its regulatory duties, accusing it of a “callous indifference to the health consequences of those imminently facing the executioner’s needle.”

He ordered the FDA to:

  1. Immediately notify any and all state correctional departments which it has reason to believe are still in possession of any foreign manufactured thiopental that the use of such drug is prohibited by law and that, that thiopental must be returned immediately to the FDA;
  2. Be permanently enjoined from permitting the entry of, or releasing any future shipments of, foreign manufactured thiopental into interstate commerce.

Although the majority of US death rows have now turned away from sodium thiopental to another anaesthetic, pentobarbital, for execution purposes, the ruling will have significant consequences for the import of all lethal injection drugs – especially as stocks of pentobarbital in US execution chambers are reportedly running low.

Reprieve investigator, Maya Foa said:  “This is a wake-up call for the Food and Drug Administration. Their mandate is to protect public health by assuring the safety and efficacy of drugs used in the USA. It is shocking that they have been allowed to fail in their duties for so long, and at such a cost in terms of human suffering. Judge Leon’s strong judgment in this case is most welcome, and will hopefully spell the end of the sordid scramble for execution drugs which we’ve witnessed over the past 18 months.”


Notes to editors1. For further information, please contact Donald Campbell in Reprieve’s press office: +44 (0) 207 427 1082 / (0) 7791 755 415 or go to Reprieve’s Stop Lethal Injection page.

2. Read or download the Beaty v FDA court order and the Beaty v FDA judgment on Reprieve’s website.

3. 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 15 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, assisting over 70 prisoners facing the death penalty around the world, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’ Follow Reprieve on twitter: @ReprieveUK; if you were forwarded this release, sign up to join our press mailing list.