Executions on hold for now in Georgia

At the Georgia state prison in Jackson, Drug Enforcement Administration agents confiscated for the first time nationally a state’s supply of sodium thiopental, a sedative that is part of a three-drug cocktail used to put inmates to death.

Defense attorneys had questioned the state’s purchase of the drug, which is no longer manufactured in the U.S. The one company that produced the drug stopped manufacturing it after protests from death penalty opponents.

“I hope this is temporary,” Cherokee County District Attorney Garry Moss said. “It’d be good to start the clock ticking again for the people on death row.”

Until the DEA finishes its review of the drug, it is unlikely any inmates will be put to death, said Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office. “Obviously, if we don’t have the drugs, no executions can be carried out.”

There are no pending executions in Georgia, but three death-row inmates, whose appeals could soon be exhausted, may have their executions delayed.

Tuesday's surprising seizure of drugs by the DEA stems from court filings in a number of capital cases. Lawyers maintain that the state bought its supply of the sedative from a pharmaceutical company that operated in the back of a storefront driving school in London.

If Georgia’s supply of the drug was counterfeit, or if it had expired, it could cause an inmate being executed to experience excruciating pain, the attorneys said.

Sodium thiopental is the first of three drugs used in Georgia’s lethal injection process. The second drug paralyzes the inmate; the third stops the heart.

The DEA seizure comes less than a month after a lawyer for death-row inmate Andrew Grant DeYoung asked the U.S. attorney general to investigate whether Georgia was violating federal law because it failed to register with the DEA when it imported the sedative from England last year.

DeYoung’s final appeals are now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gerry Weber, who unsuccessfully tried to postpone the January execution of Emmanuel Hammond, convicted of killing an Atlanta preschool teacher, applauded the DEA’s seizure.

“There are very serious questions about what they’re trying to use here in Georgia to kill people,” said Weber, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.

But Jack Mallard, a former Cobb prosecutor who tried DeYoung, expressed frustration that the state is now without the means to execute him.

“There’s nobody more deserving than Andrew Grant DeYoung,” Mallard said.

DeYoung was found guilty of killing his parents and 14-year-old sister at the family home in 1993. Each victim was stabbed more than 40 times.

“I don’t understand how the state could have let this happen,” Mallard said. “Why do they have to go to England to get a drug to execute somebody? It should be a no-brainer to have a backup plan.”

On Wednesday, Corrections spokeswoman Kristen Stancil declined to comment as to whether the agency is considering other drugs to be used in the lethal-injection process.

The nationwide shortfall of sodium thiopental has prompted at least three states — Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas — to use pentobarbital, a barbiturate more commonly employed in the euthanization of animals. At least a dozen states with the death penalty are without a supply of sodium thiopental, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Cases in question

The DEA's seizure Tuesday of one of the state's lethal injection drugs could delay execution dates for at least three Georgia death-row inmates:

  • Roy Blankenship, whose scheduled execution was stayed last month to allow for DNA testing of the evidence in the case. Blankenship sits on death row for a 1978 burglary, rape and murder of a Savannah woman in her apartment.
  • Andrew Grant DeYoung, convicted in Cobb County for the stabbing deaths of his parents and 14-year-old sister in 1993. His final appeals are pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Marques Ray Johnson, who was sentenced to death for raping, murdering and mutilating a woman after meeting her at a bar in Albany in 1994. Johnson's final appeals are also pending before the Supreme Court.

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