Earlier this year, Georgia stopped an execution at the last minute — there were particles floating in the syringe that officials planned to use.
The state's outside expert who inspected the drug found two possible causes for the problem. When state officials announced the experts' findings, however, they only reported the cause the expert found to be "most likely" — not mentioning the other possible cause cited by the expert.
"The most likely cause of this precipitation was that the drugs were shipped and stored at a temperature which was too low," Corrections spokesperson Gwendolyn Hogan said in announcing the state's findings. This gave the state an easy fix: don't store the drug at as cold a temperature in the future.
But Hogan left out the expert's other listed possible cause: an error in how the pharmacy mixed the drug.
"An additional possible cause could be if the pharmaceutical solvent used to dissolve the pentobarbital sodium had absorbed some amount of water or evaporated during the preparation process," Dr. Jason Zastre, a professor at the University of Georgia said in his affidavit. "This may result in a lower concentration of solvent, ultimately impacting the solubility of the drug, which increases the possibility of precipitation."
Zastre ultimately recommended that the state address both issues: storing its drugs closer to room temperature — and assuring that the drug maker take steps to address the water absorption concerns.
Zastre declined a request to speak with BuzzFeed News, citing his hiring by the state as an expert. The Georgia Department of Corrections did not respond to an interview request.
The process for creating the drug compounds used in executions is secretive and not publicly transparent. In Georgia, state officials do not actually mix the drugs, nor do they purchase the drugs from a manufacturer — a compounding pharmacist performs the act, behind closed doors. Compounding pharmacies are regulated mostly by individual states and their drugs have a significantly higher failure rate and much shorter shelf life than those made by manufacturers.
Several states have turned to compounding pharmacies to create their execution drugs because they are unable to get ahold of manufactured versions.
Testing labs that inspected Georgia's drug found that it was indeed pentobarbital and that it had not been adulterated, meaning there wasn't another substance in the drug. Instead, Zastre says, the drug precipitated (meaning that solid versions of pentobarbital appeared in the solution). Pentobarbital's product label and the Food and Drug Administration's guidelines say drugs that have precipitated should not be injected.
"I think I would have characterized the drug differently than 'cloudy,'" Dr. Larry Sasich told BuzzFeed News. Sasich has testified as an expert against lethal injection schemes in numerous states. "It looked more like clumps of cottage cheese floating in the solution."
"The first thing that came into my mind when I saw the pictures was the acidity of the product," he said. "And when I read through the testing lab results, I noticed that they didn't report the pH of the solution."
Sasich said it's difficult to say what the drug would do to a person if its pH level was dramatically off, because "nobody tests substandard drugs on human beings."
Georgia has indefinitely postponed its executions while it sorts out what went wrong. Inmate Kelly Gissendaner's attorney argues that his client can't be executed, because she "endured hours of unconstitutional torment and uncertainty" while the state decided whether or not to use the drug. Although the state decided to not use the drug, Gissendaner's attorney refers to it as a botched execution.
Georgia has pushed to have the suit dismissed, arguing that they will implement new safeguards to prevent this situation from happening again. The judge has not yet weighed in.
Chris McDaniel is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. His secure PGP fingerprint is C90B B2EF E872 EF22 4EDA DABB 50E6 F2BE 1164 FCAF
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