LINCOLN — Nebraska prison officials intend to keep a new supply of a lethal injection drug, over the objections of a pharmaceutical executive who says the drug was improperly obtained and sold to the state.
The chief executive officer of Naari, the Swiss company that produced the sodium thiopental — which is now waiting to be used in Nebraska's execution chamber — has asked the state to return the drug, saying it was obtained under false pretenses by a third-party broker. CEO Prithi Kochhar made the request in a Nov. 18 letter to Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican.
"I am shocked and appalled by this news," Kochhar wrote. "Naari did not supply these medicines directly to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services and is deeply opposed to the use of the medicines in executions."
The department paid $5,411 for the sodium thiopental and followed all laws and regulations to import it, Dawn-Renee Smith, the department's spokeswoman, said Tuesday. "We're really focusing on Nebraska state law and our responsibilities in carrying out executions," she said.
The letter said the company gave 485 grams of the drug to a broker by the name of Chris Harris, who said he would use the samples to get the drug registered in Zambia. Harris promised that once the drug was approved by the African nation, he would order additional supplies for use as a medical anesthetic.
The arrangement appeared plausible because sodium thiopental is widely used as an anesthetic in the developing world, Kochhar wrote.
But Harris sold the drug to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, which requires sodium thiopental as the first of three drugs to carry out an execution by lethal injection.
"Mr. Harris misappropriated our medicines and diverted them from their intended purpose and use," Kochhar wrote. "I am writing to request that the thiopental which was wrongfully diverted by Mr. Harris to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services be returned immediately to its rightful owners, that is, that it be returned to us at Naari."
A spokeswoman for Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said Tuesday that corrections officials complied with all regulations set by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"The sodium thiopental received by NDCS was approved for legal export by the government of India and approved for legal import by the regulatory federal agencies of the United States," said spokeswoman Shannon Kingery. "It has been tested and positively identified as sodium thiopental."
A Nov. 3 press release about the drug purchase issued by the Department of Correctional Services mentioned the Swiss company by name.
Department officials never said they purchased the drug directly from the company, Smith said. The press release said only that the drug was manufactured by Naari.
Smith acknowledged Tuesday that the department bought the drug from Harris, a broker based in Calcutta.
The department sent an email to Harris on Tuesday seeking clarification about his arrangement with the company, Smith said. But Harris had not responded by the end of the business day.
The drug is no longer made in the United States and is becoming increasingly scarce abroad because of the controversy surrounding its use in lethal injections. Nebraska joined the market for the drug when it switched its execution method from electrocution to lethal injection in 2009.
Harris is the same broker that the Correctional Services Department used to obtain a previous supply of sodium thiopental, which became embroiled in a legal dispute over how it was imported from India.
As Nebraska's first lethal injection approached, it was learned that neither the state nor the Indian company had the proper federal permits to import sodium thiopental.
In May, questions about the drug led the Nebraska Supreme Court to grant a stay of execution for Carey Dean Moore, sentenced to die for killing two Omaha cabdrivers in 1979. Appeals in Moore's case are pending.
In the meantime, state officials obtained the new batch of sodium thiopental.
On the same day that corrections officials announced that they had the drug, the attorney general filed legal documents to obtain an execution date for Michael Ryan, convicted of the 1985 murders of two people at a religious cult encampment near Rulo, Neb. The attorney general's request is pending before the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Chief Justice Heavican will not respond to the company's letter because it involves issues that the high court might have to address in the future. Supreme Court Clerk Lanet Asmussen forwarded the letter to the attorney general and the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, which is representing Moore and Ryan in the death penalty cases.
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