Did Ohio's New Lethal-Injection Cocktail Lead to a Cruel and Unusual Death For This Death-Row Inmate?

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Jan. 16 2014 1:24 PM

Did Ohio's New Lethal-Injection Cocktail Lead to a Cruel and Unusual Death For Dennis McGuire?

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Prison inmate clothes lie on a bed in the holding cell of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility August 29, 2001 in Lucasville, Ohio

File photo by Mike Simons/Getty Images

The state of Ohio this morning executed Dennis McGuire for the 1989 rape and murder of 22-year-old Joy Stewart, a newlywed who was eight months pregnant at the time of her death. McGuire became the first person to be put to death by the state this year, but that's not the reason that his death drew so much media interest. Nor was it because of any dispute over his guilt (McGuire himself had acknowledged he was responsible for Stewart's death in a letter to Gov. John Kasich last month).

Instead, it was because of how Ohio executed the 53-year-old—with an untested and controversial new lethal-injection cocktail that had never been used in the United States before.

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His lawyers had argued unsuccessfully that using the new two-drug recipe was a violation of the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, claiming that the combination of the sedative midozolam and painkiller hydropmorphone could cause "air hunger," the painful and terrifying sensation of straining to catch your breath.

Earlier this week, a federal judge conceded Ohio's two-drug recipe was an "experiment in lethal injection processes" but nonetheless refused to block the execution. I obviously wasn't in the room to witness it, but based on the two media accounts that have come in so far, it sounds as though the defense team's fears may have been sadly realized. Here's how the Columbus Dispatch's Alan Johnson saw things:

At about 10:33 a.m., McGuire started struggling and gasping loudly for air, making snorting and choking sounds that lasted for at least 10 minutes, with his chest heaving and his fist clenched. Deep, rattling sounds eminated from his mouth. For the last several moments before he was pronounced dead, he was still.

And the Associated Press' Andrew Welsh-Huggins paints a similarly dark picture:

McGuire made several loud snorting or snoring sounds during one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999. ... As his adult children sobbed a few feet away in a witness room, McGuire opened and shut his left hand as if waving to his daughter, son and daughter-in-law.
More than a minute later he raised himself up, looked in the direction of his family and said, "I love you. I love you" - his words audible even though the microphone had been removed. McGuire was still for almost five minutes, then emitted a loud snort, as if snoring, and continued to make that sound over the next several minutes. He also soundlessly opened and shut his mouth several times as his stomach rose and fell.
"Oh my God," his daughter, Amber McGuire, said as she observed her father's final moments.

In all, it took roughly 24 minutes from when the drugs were first administered until McGuire was pronounced dead. As Welsh-Huggins explains, previous executions "with the former execution method took much less time, and typically did not include the types of snorts and gasps that McGuire uttered." Afterward, McGuire's lawyer, federal public defender Allen Bohnert, called his client's death "a failed, agonizing experiment by the state of Ohio."

Ohio turned to the new two-drug cocktail after supplies of the single drug (pentobarbital) the state had previously used for lethal injections ran out following the manufacturer's decision to make it off limits for capitol punishment.

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Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. Follow him on Twitter.