Virginia prison officials have paid a secret compounding pharmacy $66,000 to obtain lethal injection drugs for its next two executions — roughly 63 times last year's going price for the state's three-drug lethal injection package.
Like other states, Virginia has struggled to obtain these drugs as pharmaceutical companies block their sale for executions to avoid being publicly accused of violating medical ethics. But under a new law, the state can have the drugs made at a compounding pharmacy and shield its identity from the public.
Virginia's lethal injection protocol calls for the use of a sedative — pentobarbital or midazolam — followed by rocuronium bromide to halt breathing, and potassium chloride to stop the heart.
The Virginia Department of Corrections has paid this pharmacy $66,000 since September for vials of midazolam and potassium chloride, according to receipts provided to The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request after the pharmacy's identifying information was redacted.
Virginia also recently purchased about $340 worth of rocuronium bromide from Cardinal Health, an Ohio-based pharmaceutical wholesaler, invoices show.
This gives the state enough drugs to execute two inmates, according to Lisa Kinney, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, as long as legal appeals don't continue beyond the drugs' early-2017 expiration dates.
Virginia added midazolam to its drug protocol in 2014 but has not yet used it. Megan McCracken, a lethal injection expert at the University of California, Berkeley law school, said Virginia would be the first state she knows of to use compounded midazolam to execute an inmate.
Death penalty opponents have objected to midazolam after problematic executions elsewhere. An Alabama inmate coughed repeatedly and his body heaved for 13 minutes after he was supposed to be sedated during his execution on Thursday.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in September that the state had agreed to pay the compounding pharmacy $16,500 per drug per execution. The documents obtained by the AP show the state went ahead with those purchases.
The drugs for Virginia's last execution, carried out in 2015, came cheap by comparison: Serial killer Alfredo Prieto was put to death using compounded pentobarbital provided by the state of Texas, along with other drugs Virginia had in store. The going price for a supply of the three drugs needed for a single execution early last year was about $525, Kinney said.
The costs have shot up nationwide since opponents of the death penalty threatened to shame any conventional pharmaceutical company supplying these drugs.
"When fewer suppliers are willing to participate, the law of supply and demand says that the price will go up," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which advocates against capital punishment. "And when there are business risks of becoming known as a pharmacy that kills rather than preserves life, the pharmacy will charge more."
Virginia got its latest supply of rocuronium bromide at a bargain price, apparently unbeknownst to its manufacturer.
"We don't really want any part of this issue from a public standpoint," said Jeff Granger, vice president of business strategies for X-GEN Pharmaceuticals.
Granger told the AP he was surprised and concerned to learn that X-GEN's rocuronium bromide had been resold by a wholesaler to Virginia's prison system. He said X-GEN had tried to put controls in place to prevent its products from being used in executions.
A spokesman for Gov. Terry McAuliffe — who signed the law allowing Virginia to obtain lethal injection drugs from the secret compounding pharmacy — declined to comment. Brian Coy told the Times-Dispatch in September that in the "modern atmosphere, with respect to lethal injections, this is the cost of enforcing the law."
An execution date of Jan. 18 has been set for Ricky Gray, who was convicted of slaying a well-known family of four in Richmond on New Years' Day in 2006.
The U.S. Supreme Court also recently rejected an appeal by another Virginia inmate — Ivan Teleguz — was convicted in 2006 of hiring a man to kill his ex-girlfriend. Teleguz has another appeal pending in the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.