ATLANTA — A US shortage of a key lethal injection drug deepened yesterday as federal regulators investigated whether Georgia circumvented the law in obtaining its supply and Texas announced it was switching to an alternative.
The Drug Enforcement Administration seized Georgia’s entire supply of sodium thiopental, which defense attorneys say came from a fly-by-night British supplier operating from the back of a driving school in a gritty London neighborhood.
DEA agents have not said exactly why they seized the drug, except that there were questions about how it was imported.
The supply issues have delayed executions in several states and forced at least five to turn to England for the drug, a sedative in the three-drug execution cocktail used by most of the nation’s 35 death penalty states. Texas officials said they are switching to another, stronger sedative often used to euthanize animals.
The seizure in Georgia effectively delays any executions until the federal probe is complete, which could take months. That’s little comfort to friends of Emmanuel Hammond, a 45-year-old who was executed in January even after his attorneys argued that the state could have illegally obtained the drug.
“There’s something terribly wrong when officials charged with enforcing criminal laws break them,’’ said Brian Mendelsohn, an attorney for Hammond.
Georgia corrections spokeswoman Joan Heath said the state is cooperating with the DEA probe.
Georgia’s stockpile of sodium thiopental — believed to be around 20 grams, enough for at least four executions — has been under scrutiny since corrections officials released documents in court that showed the state bought the drug from Dream Pharma, a company in London that has the same address as the Elgone Driving Academy.
The firm hasn’t responded to several e-mail and phone calls seeking comment, and a reporter who visited the store yesterday was told the owner was gone for the day. Sodium thiopental has been in short supply since Hospira Inc., its sole US manufacturer, decided in January to stop making it.