A shipment of illegal execution drugs was on its way to Nebraska from India late last month, BuzzFeed News has learned, but improper paperwork led FedEx to return the drugs to the sender before they left the country.
Nebraska ordered more than $50,000 of sodium thiopental and other execution drugs from a distributor in India named Chris Harris in May. The Food and Drug Administration has consistently maintained that importing the drug would be illegal, but the state has shown every intention of moving forward regardless. The FDA says it will not allow the drug into the U.S.
The drugs were shipped via FedEx on August 24, but never made it to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. The shipment was returned to the sender in India due to "improper or missing paperwork," according to the tracking page.
According to the company handling the shipping from India, it was because the drug lacked FDA approval. "Our shipment has to clear the U.S. office," Rohit Sharma said. "But they told us that it does not have FDA clearance."
Sharma added that he sent the drugs back to the drug distributor, Harris. "He will FedEx it from Kolkata," Sharma said.
In a statement, FedEx said it's standard procedure to notify the FDA and Customs before importing drugs.
"This shipment was never brought to the United States," a spokesperson said. "The paperwork was incorrect in India and it was returned to the shipper. As with any international importation of a drug, data about that shipment is transmitted to federal agencies in advance, including U.S. Customs and the Food and Drug Administration. If the shipment is authorized, we will deliver it to the recipient; if it is not, we will return it to the foreign shipper."
The FDA declined to comment on if it instructed FedEx and Sharma's company that the drug had to be returned to India. Customs did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the FedEx form, the shipment was of roughly 50 lbs of sodium thiopental — an anesthetic that had previously been used in lethal injections throughout the nation until its sole U.S. manufacturer stopped making the drug in 2011.
Harris, who runs a small company called Harris Pharma, approached Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes earlier this year about selling sodium thiopental for executions. Frakes was immediately interested, and ultimately purchased $54,400 worth of drugs — enough for more than 300 executions. The state has only 10 men on death row, and there is currently a battle over whether, under the recent legislative death penalty repeal there, those men can even be executed.
Harris has apparently sold drugs to at least one other state as well this year. Ohio had also intended to illegally import the drug, but it's unclear if it was from Harris or another supplier.
Since Nebraska announced the drug purchase in May, the FDA has repeatedly stated that it will not allow the drugs into the U.S, since they aren't made by an FDA-approved manufacturer. Gov. Pete Ricketts had been publicly confident that he would be able to import the drugs. His office directed questions to the Department of Correctional Services.
"We do not have any of the [sodium thiopental]," Correctional Services spokesperson James Foster said. "We don't know why it was sent back. I think that's FedEx and Harris Pharma working things out."