For years, Illinois-based Hospira Inc. worried about its drugs being used across the country for lethal injections. So, a company spokesman says, Hospira sent letters to all the states annually — including Florida — stating its opposition to the drugs' use to carry out death sentences.
But the states, including Florida, continued using at least one Hospira product in the three-drug "cocktail" approved for executions.
There was nothing illegal about that, but their continued use of Hospira products to execute inmates ultimately compelled the company last month to announce its decision to stop all production of its trademarked anesthetic, Pentothal. The supplies that states already have on hand are set to expire this year.
"Hospira provides these products because they improve or save lives and markets them solely for use as indicated on the product labeling," wrote Kees Gioenhout, Hospira's vice president of Clinical Research and Development, in a letter sent to Ohio in March. "As such, we do not support the use of any of our products in capital punishment procedures."
The Florida Department of Corrections has no record of any such letters sent to its headquarters in Tallahassee. "I have not been able to find the letter or anyone who remembers getting the letter," said corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger. In an earlier e-mail, Plessinger wrote, "I can't find that letter. They didn't send it to the Secretary or legal or Institutions."
But Hospira spokesman Daniel Rosenberg said, "We sent letters to all the states. It was sent to Florida."
Hospira sent letters each year during the past decade, Rosenberg said, sharing concerns about the use of Hospira drugs in executions. Hospira was the sole manufacturer of sodium thiopental, or Pentothal, which was specifically listed in Florida's lethal-injection procedures spelled out by the Department of Corrections secretary in an April 2008 document.
In announcing its decision to cease making the drug, Hospira said it could not ensure that third-party suppliers would never sell the drug to state departments of corrections for use in executions. Authorities in Italy, where the drug was made, were also concerned about — and opposed to — the drug's use in executions in the United States.
When the Orlando Sentinel and its attorney requested Florida's Department of Corrections vendor history for the drug, the department denied the request, citing a state statute listing certain department records and information as confidential.
The Hospira situation is the latest example of the dilemmas death-penalty states sometimes face in finding humane ways to carry out their executions.
Florida's use of lethal injections came under scrutiny after the December 2006 execution of Angel Nieves Diaz. The convicted killer took 34 minutes to die and required two doses of the lethal drugs.
The state's use of lethal injection as its primary means of execution was adopted in 2000 as an alternative to the electric chair: "Old Sparky." Death-row inmates today may still opt for the electric chair, but the change to lethal injections as the primary method came after concerns about "botched" executions surfaced in using the electric chair. During 1990 and 1997, flames or smoke arose from inmates during electrocution.
Now that Hospira no longer manufactures Pentothal, Florida and many other states must seek alternative drugs. Many states used Pentothal as the anesthetic, followed by pancuronium bromide to relax muscles and potassium chloride to stop the heart. "We are in the process of establishing a new lethal-injection procedure," Plessinger said. "Currently no death warrants are pending; however, we will be ready to carry out a humane execution if a warrant is signed."
Soon after the Hospira decision, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced it would replace sodium thiopental with pentobarbital in its executions. The Ohio department noted in a Jan. 25 statement that pentobarbital is "widely available and manufactured in the United States."
Pentobarbital, more commonly used in euthanizing animals, has been used by Oklahoma officials in that state's lethal-injection process. It is also the drug being considered for use in Florida, Plessinger said last week.
On Thursday morning, Ohio used its remaining stores of Hospira's Pentothal to execute Frank Spisak, a triple murderer and longtime death-row inmate in that state. Ohio's old protocol called for that drug alone to be used in its executions.
In the future, Pentobarbital will be the sole drug used, said ODRC spokeswoman JoEllen Smith.
When asked about the Hospira letter opposing the use of its drug in executions, Smith said she was aware of the letter. Asked how the state responded, Smith said, "I don't believe there was an official response by Ohio in regard to that letter."
Michelle Lyons, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said she was not aware of the Hospira letter being sent to her department. Texas still has a small amount of Pentothal on hand, but, like Florida, that large death-row state is still reviewing alternative drugs for future executions.
A number of state attorneys general have written to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking for the federal government's assistance in possibly obtaining overseas supplies of sodium thiopental, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
But Dieter expects most states will look at pentobarbital and other substitutes. In addition, he said a group of death-row inmates from three states has challenged the federal Food and Drug Administration for failing to review the quality of lethal-injection drugs coming from overseas.
As for the letters sent out by Hospira, Dieter said they signal that many in the health profession — drug manufacturers, doctors "or even the FDA" — want to distance themselves from the death penalty.
"It may not be the best public relations for a health company to be associated with a killing drug," he said. Though the Hospira letters probably had no binding effect, Dieter said "they do symbolize the growing sentiment that the U.S. is isolated in its use of the death penalty and that others are willing to take concrete steps, even to their economic disadvantage, to discourage such use."
By Anthony Colarossi, Orlando Sentinel10:45 PM EST, February 21, 2011
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