Federal agents caught Arizona importing illegal execution drugs

Federal officials confiscated the shipment when it arrived via British Airways at the Phoenix International Airport in July, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press.

A fence surrounds the state prison in Florence, Ariz., where the execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood took place, July 23, 2014. Arizona has joined a number of states that have tried to illegally import a lethal injection drug that’s not approved in the United States, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. The documents revealing Arizona’s attempt are part of a lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections over transparency in executions, and the AP is a party in the suit. Executions in the state have been placed on hold following the nearly two-hour death of murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood in 2014.

Federal agents seized a shipment of lethal injection drugs illegally imported by Arizona at the Phoenix airport earlier this year, sparking protests from the state’s corrections department over the interference.

The incident was recorded in documents obtained by the Associated Press as part of a lawsuit against the state’s corrections department over transparency in executions. The documents said Arizona paid nearly $27,000 for sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that has been used to carry out executions but is no longer manufactured by Food and Drug Administration-approved companies.

Federal officials confiscated the shipment when it arrived via British Airways at the Phoenix International Airport in July. So far they’ve refused to release them.

"The department is contesting FDA's legal authority to continue to withhold the state's execution chemicals," state Corrections Department spokesman Andrew Wilder said Thursday. The department has promised not to use the drugs until the FDA signs off or a court allows it, but the agency hasn’t budged.

Arizona’s attempt to import the drugs highlights its shared struggle with other death penalty states to obtain execution chemicals. The drugs have become harder and harder to find in recent years, especially after European pharmaceutical companies banned their sales.

States have had to change drug combinations and even put executions on hold while they look for alternatives. With supplies running low, Ohio has halted its executions until at least 2017 as it scrambles to restock.

In Arizona, executions have been put on hold since the lengthy death of Joseph Rudolph Wood in July 2014. The state has pledged not to renew them until it resolves a lawsuit seeking information about the drugs used in executions. It has also promised to use drugs different from those used in Mr. Wood’s execution.

Dale Baich, Wood's attorney, was critical of Arizona's attempt to import drugs for lethal injection. The documents obtained by the AP didn’t reveal what country or company they’re from.

"Once again, the Arizona Department of Corrections is trying to skirt the law in order to get execution drugs, Mr. Baich told the AP.  “Nobody is above the law, and that includes the Arizona Department of Corrections.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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