The radiolabeled isatin sulfonamide caspase-3 inhibitor, [18F]2 (WC-II-89), is a potential PET radiotracer for noninvasive imaging of apoptosis. The radiolabeling mechanism was studied by 13C NMR, ESI/MS, and computational calculations. It was found that the high electrophilicity of the C3 carbonyl group in the isatin ring, which served as a trap for [ 18F]fluoride, was responsible for the failure of the radiolabeling via nucleophilic substitution of the mesylate group in 7a by [ 18F]fluoride. Once treated with a strong base, 7a opened the isatin ring completely to form an isatinate intermediate 16, which lost the ability to trap [18F]fluoride, thereby allowing the displacement of the mesylate group to afford the 18F-labeled isatinate 17. [18F]17 can be converted to isatin [18F]2 efficiently under acidic conditions. The ring-opening and re-closure of the isatin ring under basic and acidic conditions were confirmed by reversed phase HPLC analysis, ESI/MS and 13C NMR studies. Computational studies of model compounds also support the above proposed mechanism. Similarly, the ring-opening and re-closure method was used successfully in the synthesis of the 11C labeled isatin sulfonamide analogue [11C]4 (WC-98). A microPET imaging study using [11C]4 in the Fas liver apoptosis model demonstrated retained activity in the target organ (liver) of the treated mice. Increased caspase-3 activation in the liver was verified by the fluorometric caspase-3 enzyme assay. Therefore, this study provides a useful method for radio-synthesis of isatin derivative radiotracers for PET and SPECT studies, and [11C]4 is a potential PET radiotracer for noninvasive imaging of apoptosis.