Nebraska Company wants state to return lethal injection drug

By Margery A. Beck

Associated Press

OMAHA, Nebraska (AP) -- A Swiss pharmaceutical company is asking U.S. state officials to return a drug the state plans to use to execute death row inmates.

Earlier this month, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services announced that it had obtained a new supply of sodium thiopental, one of three drugs needed to carry out executions by lethal injection, from Swiss company Naari AG. The drug is no longer manufactured in the United States and is in scarce supply worldwide.

But as first reported Tuesday by The Lincoln Journal Star, Naari CEO Prithi Kochhar said in a letter sent on Nov. 18 to Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican and Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning that his company did not supply the drug to the state and would never support its use for lethal reasons.

"I am shocked and appalled by this news," Kochhar wrote. "I am writing to request that the thiopental which was wrongfully diverted ... to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services be returned immediately to its rightful owners, that is, that it be returned to us at Naari."

The company gave free samples of the drug, produced at its Indian manufacturing facilities, to a man in India who said he wanted to use it and eventually sell it as an anesthetic in Zambia, Kochhar's letter said. Instead, the middleman sold the samples for $5,411 to Nebraska officials.

It is the second time Nebraska has gone to India for the drug and stirred contention by doing so.

In January, the state Department of Correctional Services announced it had obtained 500 grams of sodium thiopental from an Indian company, clearing the way for Nebraska's first execution by lethal injection. But questions soon arose about the legality of the purchase by Nebraska and other states, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency seized stockpiles of the drug from several states, including Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee.

The DEA has declined to say at the time whether Nebraska's supply was under investigation. Regardless, state officials sought a new supply of sodium thiopental.

Asked about Kochhar's account of how Nebraska received the sodium thiopental, the Nebraska Attorney General's office issued a two-sentence statement saying the drug "was approved for legal export by the government of India and approved for legal import by the regulatory federal agencies of the United States (DEA and Customs)."

The office declined to comment further, saying it had not received the letter from Kochhar by Tuesday. However, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, Shannon Kingery, said the office had seen a copy of the Nebraska Supreme Court's letter. She directed further questions to the state Department of Correctional Services.

Corrections spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith said the department has contacted the middleman to gather more information on how he obtained the drug from the manufacturer, but noted that the corrections department has not received a request from Naari to return the drug and has no plans to return it.

"From our perspective, we obtained that legally," she said. "I'm not sure there really are any next steps at this point. We would, obviously, work with them with the Attorney General's office as necessary."

Kochhar learned of his company's product ending up in Nebraska from London-based human rights group Reprieve, according to Reprieve investigator Maya Foa.

Foa said she began looking into how Nebraska obtained the drug after seeing a Nov. 3 news release from state officials naming Naari as the company that supplied the drug.

"It really takes very little to see that Naari is not a company that would wittingly and willingly choose to be part of executions," Foa told the AP on Tuesday. "They're very much dedicated and focused on health."

Foa said she contacted Kochhar, who was "surprised and shocked" that the drug had been sold to Nebraska. Kochhar did not respond to AP requests through Foa for comment.

Hours after the state corrections department disclosed on Nov. 3 that it has secured a second batch of sodium thiopental, the attorney general's office asked the state Supreme Court to schedule an execution date for former cult leader Michael Ryan, who was condemned for the torture and slaying of a man in 1985 at Ryan's compound near Rulo.

Ryan's lawyer, Jerrie Soucie with the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, said he planned to file a response regarding the attorney general's application for an execution date for Ryan. Soucie declined to comment further.

Heavican, Nebraska's chief justice, declined to comment on the letter, but the state Supreme Court's clerk on Tuesday sent a reply to Kochhar explaining that Nebraska's judicial code keeps judges from considering communications on pending legal matters outside the presence of the parties or their lawyers.

The clerk asked Kochhar to refrain from sending other communication on the matter to the Nebraska Supreme Court.

Published: Thu, Dec 1, 2011