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A Cruel and Unusual Death

Ohio’s most recent execution raises questions about constitutionality and ethics

By Stephen Novotni · January 29th, 2014 · News
death penaltyA lawsuit asks Ohio to halt the procedure used during Dennis McGuire’s 26-minute execution.

According to observations made by multiple witnesses of the Jan. 16 execution of Dennis McGuire, the Ohioan might have been alert and in excruciating pain during his death by lethal injection. McGuire’s execution was for the 1989 rape and murder of 22-year-old Joy Stewart, who was pregnant at the time of her death.

Despite the fact that McGuire was found guilty of such a heinous act, his unusually long — 26-minute — and apparently traumatic execution has led to a public dialogue on how Ohio carries out executions, on whether McGuire’s execution violated his civil rights and if we, as a nation, should carry out the death penalty at all.

Amber McGuire, the condemned man’s daughter, described the scene in a statement released the day after the execution: “Shortly after the warden buttoned his jacket to signal the start of the execution, my dad began gasping and struggling to breathe. I watched his stomach heave. I watched him try to sit up against the straps on the gurney. I watched him repeatedly clench his fist. It appeared to me he was fighting for his life but suffocating. The agony and terror of watching my dad suffocate to death lasted more than 19 minutes. It was the most awful moment in my life to witness my dad’s execution. I can’t think of any other way to describe it than torture.”

There were warnings before the execution that it could end badly. Ohio used a barbiturate called pentobarbital for lethal injections until 2013, when the state’s supply ran out and the manufacturer refused to sell the state any more out of ethical concerns. Ohio turned to an untested drug cocktail instead — a combination of hydromorphone and mydazolam — despite warnings that it would cause suffering. 

Ten days before McGuire’s execution, Harvard Medical School Associate Professor of Anesthesia David Waisel presented a federal court with a prepared statement in which he asserted that the state’s dosage was too low for McGuire’s size and the drugs inadequate, rendering it likely that McGuire would be all too aware of suffocating to death.

CityBeat spoke with Jonathan Groner, a professor of clinical surgery at Ohio State University, who agrees that the use of these alternative drugs is problematic.

“Barbiturates (like pentobarbital) are capable of rendering a person pretty deeply unconscious,” Groner says.

“That is less true of what was used in the McGuire execution.”

Mydazolam is a sedative, used for relieving anxiety, and hydromorphone is a narcotic, which relieves pain, but is not an anesthetic, he says.

“It seems that what McGuire got was not anesthetic,” Groner says. “What he got was a narcotic overdose. He died like heroin addicts die. He probably vomited, aspirated, choked, gasped and then died. It’s hard to know if he was rendered pain-free during the execution. Obviously, suffocating to death is painful, but we don’t know if he was that deeply comatose. I wouldn’t want what he got to have my appendix out. … I would be concerned that I would feel something.”

Groner says there are multiple problems with the drugs given to McGuire and the Ohio lethal injection process in general: He says the person administering the drugs cannot be a doctor, since participating in a killing would violate the Hippocratic Oath. Executioners are anonymous and the process secretive, but Ohio likely uses a medic, Groner says, who may have familiarity with IV drugs but would not be nearly as proficient as an anesthesiologist. The person administering the IV does so from a separate room, and the use of these specific drugs risks an agonizing death.

“The problem with lethal injection is the people who do it best aren’t allowed to,” Groner says. “It has the veneer of medical respectability, but, frankly, the Nazis used that veneer, too.”

McGuire family attorney Jon Paul Rion says McGuire’s family, through his law office, has filed a lawsuit against the state of Ohio, claiming that Dennis McGuire’s Eighth Amendment guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment was violated during his execution.

“Obviously, the length of time is a concern,” Rion says. “But this struggling, this gasping for air, this trying to raise himself off the table — that’s what we are really concerned about. All the people in the room, both reporters and witnesses have given a very consistent story about what happened.”

Rion says his clients want a declaration from the court that the procedure used on McGuire was unconstitutional and should never be used again.

“Dennis Ray McGuire (Dennis McGuire’s son) was talking with his father, and the issue of how he was going to die came up because the defense experts predicted it would be exactly as it happened,” Rion says. “Knowing that he might suffer, he made his son promise, if in fact that happened, that his son do something that make sure another person doesn’t go through what he was about to go through. It was based on that promise that the family called us.”

Rion says Ohio’s execution plan was untested and there was a scarce amount of data to support its use.

“To put it in perspective, I don’t think the smallest of animals would be put to death in a veterinary clinic with this minimal amount of information,” Rion says. “The standards in the veterinary world are far higher than in the execution world. Any vet who would use this combination of drugs on an animal would probably be brought before a board.”

Regarding his clients’ lawsuit, Rion says there were clear warnings that what did happen would happen. 

“We are beyond the theoretical argument and we are in the very real world of what this combination of drugs will do to a person,” Rion says. “We believe the court will issue an injunction, at least, prohibiting this procedure from occurring again.”

Ohio executed three people in 2013 and plans to execute another five this year, with convicted killer Gregory Lott next in line. ©



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