How a Mumbai man helped disrupt the US’s supply of lethal drugs used to execute convicts

A lethal injection chamber in the US.
A lethal injection chamber in the US.
Image: AP Photo/Amber Hunt
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The conscience of a Mumbai pharmaceutical executive contributed to the US’s shortage of drugs used to execute prisoners on death row.

In 2011, Navneet Verma, chief executive officer of Kayem Pharmaceutical, stopped shipping sodium thiopental to the US when he learned that it was being used to kill prisoners. The drug is conventionally used as an anesthetic.

“I was not aware the product was used for execution,” said Verma, chief executive officer of Kayem Pharmaceutical, a company that sources drugs from manufacturers and supplies them to domestic and foreign markets. “I just sold sodium thiopental to the United States government thinking they were going to use it for bonafide reasons.”

On May 8 the Oklahoma Supreme Court temporarily stayed the execution of Charles Warner, who was to be executed with a new combination of chemicals developed because of this shortage. On April 29, an Oklahoma prison’s experiment with this new mixture of chemicals to execute another prisoner resulted in the man spending 43 minutes writhing in pain before he died of a heart attack, rather than from the injection administered to him.

Sodium thiopental or a similar barbiturate is the first drug to be injected into a prisoner who is being executed. The drug, administered in an overdose of 5gm, is supposed to render the prisoner unconscious. A second drug causes full-body paralysis, while a third is intended to stop the heart. If delivered incorrectly, prisoners could potentially die very painfully, as Clayton Lockett did on April 29.

Kayem was supplying the drug to the Ministry of Defence in Angola when the director of a jail in Nebraska approached the firm in 2010, and offered to help reach the US market as well.

“He said I would be creating history,” Verma said. “I knew that the drugs were being used for prisons as I was the one who authorized the invoices. I just did not know they would be used for the death penalty. The director said that big orders would follow after we sent them an initial sample, and he said he would mark me as the sole supplier for all prisons in Nebraska.”

Verma eventually dispatched two cases of 500 vials each: one to Nebraska, and the other to South Dakota. These, he said, would have expired by 2012. “We supplied only 1,000 vials to the US before we learned what they were using it for. At that time, I was supplying 100,000 vials to Angola, where they use it as their first line of treatment.”

Kayem would probably have increased its supply of sodium thiopental to the US had he not been contacted by Reprieve, a British organization that advocates the abolition of the death penalty. Reprieve was working on a larger campaign to convince pharmaceutical companies across the world to stop supplying drugs to prisons.

“These people [at Reprieve] told me that they were using it for capital punishment,” Verma said. “There was a chance that some innocent person might die. It is different in India; we don’t execute as many people, so there is less chance for mistakes. So I told the US officials that we do not believe in these sort of things. If this drug is misused, we will say goodbye.”

Verma, a Hindu who believes in “transcendental meditation,” is opposed to the death penalty. “I believe that if someone has done a crime, they should be removed as far away from our society as possible,” he said. “…Our jurisprudence believes in reformation.”

The US had been scouring the world for supplies of the drug since 2011, when Hospira, the last US-based company to manufacture sodium pentothal, ceased production. In 2011, the UK and the Europe Commission imposed export restrictions on the drug. In 2012, a US district court banned all imports of sodium thiopental. Prisons are now experimenting with another drug altogether: pentobarbital, used by veterinarians to put down large animals.

“American companies didn’t want to make the drugs because they weren’t profitable, and they didn’t want to make them if they were only for executions,” said Maya Foa, director of the Death Penalty Team of Reprieve, who had contacted Verma.

According to Reprieve, the US, which ranks fourth on Amnesty International’s list of number of executions in 2013, became so desperate for lethal injection drugs that they were willing to relax their notoriously strict import regulations for this. That is why they approached Verma.

But the executive says he is no longer interested in sodium thiopental. He is disgusted by its misuse, as he is by the use of other drugs in executions. “Do you know what they use to stop the heart in the injection?” Verma asked. “Potassium chloride. They use that to clean gutters in some parts of the world.”

This article originally appeared on Scroll.In