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Missouri Execution Stalled Over Lethal Drugs In Short Supply

A few years ago, Missouri, like other states, was having trouble finding lethal execution drugs. Europe was balking, and U.S. drug manufacturers didn't want a part of it.

So Missouri turned to a place called a compounding pharmacy to make up the needed drugs based on the ingredients. Missouri officials sent an employee to a place called The Apothecary Shoppe in Oklahoma, with thousands of dollars in cash.

Last week, George Lombardi, director of Missouri's Department of Corrections, explained to lawmakers why his employees had to go to such lengths.

"We searched all over the country for ways in which to get the drugs," he said. "The statute mandates that the Department of Corrections ... carry out executions. And so it doesn't say, 'Try your best.' It says, 'You have to do this.' That being the case, we searched every which way to do this."

Now even the Oklahoma pharmacy can't help the state. Last week, attorneys for death row inmate Michael Taylor sued The Apothecary Shoppe, arguing that the shop can't sell compounded drugs across state lines because it is not registered with the FDA as a drug manufacturer.

And, the lawyers argued, the shop is unregulated, so there's no way to know what it was making.

The Apothecary Shoppe agreed this week not to make the drugs for Taylor's execution; his attorneys asked a federal judge Tuesday to halt the execution.

But The Apothecary Shoppe has made drugs in the past. An investigation by NPR member station St. Louis Public Radio found the pharmacy has provided execution drugs for three of Missouri's executions — and possibly for other states, as well.

A pharmacy spokeswoman told NPR she couldn't comment, saying only that the pharmacy denies all the allegations in the recent suit.

"The states were scrambling and still are," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. He says the suit will reverberate.

"It is a shot across the bow of compounding pharmacies that they are going to be sued by defendants if ... they're doing things across state lines that they don't have full permission for, if they're not fully licensed, if they have had some sanctions in the past — those things are going to come out."

Dieter says compounding pharmacies can be easy targets for defense lawyers because they are not highly regulated. They're making the drug based on their own recipes, and there have been some questionable results.

In January, an Oklahoma inmate cried out that his whole body was burning during an execution. And in 2012, it took South Dakota officials 20 minutes to declare an inmate dead because his heart kept beating.

The drug mixture can also vary from state to state.

"There were four executions this year by four different lethal injection methods," Dieter says. "The first four all involved different combinations, so there's a bit of an experiment going on."

It wasn't always such an experiment, back when the drugs were coming from Europe. But that changed a decade ago.

"Europe, who opposes the death penalty strongly, came to realize that its drugs were being used in U.S. executions, and that immediately sent up alarms," Dieter explains.

So Europe cut the supply, he says. Now, state corrections departments are having to learn more about pharmaceutical drug manufacturing than they bargained for.

In Missouri, Gov. Jay Nixon said last week the state was prepared to move ahead with its planned execution of Michael Taylor on Feb. 26. But it is unclear now if the state can get the lethal drug, or find a replacement, in time.

The governor's spokesman did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.

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Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most disadvantaged people.