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Apparent Problems During Execution With New Drug Cocktail

Thursday, January 16, 2014 at 4:15 PM

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A convicted killer from western Ohio became the first person ever to be executed with a two-drug mix that the state adopted as its execution method late last year. But as Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler reports, the execution apparently did not proceed smoothly.

The execution of Dennis McGuire for the 1989 rape and murder of pregnant victim Joy Stewart was historic – it was the first time an inmate was killed by a mix of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone.

McGuire’s attorney had argued before the execution that using the new lethal injection could cause McGuire to suffer breathing difficulties before death. 

Initial reports show that this may have indeed occurred.

Columbus Dispatch reporter Alan Johnson has seen 18 executions, and was in Lucasville for McGuire’s as well.

He said McGuire told his family he loved them and thanked the Stewart family for a letter they sent him. McGuire waved at his family a few times, and closed his eyes, but then seemed to have trouble breathing.

“At first it appeared to be like a snore or a snort. But then he began gasping deeply, his chest and stomach would compress and expand, and it was kind of rattling, gasping, even choking sound, I would say. And this went on intermittently for at least 10 minutes, perhaps a little more,” Johnson said.

McGuire’s body reportedly heaved as he coughed and gasped, perhaps as a natural reaction to his respiratory system shutting down.

“We don’t know what he was experiencing. We have no idea if he was in pain and probably will never know,” Johnson said.

Associated Press reporter Andrew Welsh Huggins, who wrote a book about the death penalty in Ohio and has witnessed about a dozen executions, said there’s no way to know whether McGuire was in pain or in terror, or completely unconscious. 

“Clearly this did not go the way the prison system wanted,” Huggins said.

McGuire’s attorney, Allen Bohnert, is the lead attorney in a decade-long lawsuit about Ohio lethal injections, which has attracted more than 90 inmate plaintiffs. 

“The short version is, Ohio’s experiment failed,” Bohnert said, referring to the new drug mix.

He said what happened was entirely consistent with what he had argued in court, and that it backs up the concerns that a federal judge expressed about the process when he allowed the execution to go forward. 

“Ohioans need to understand that the death penalty is carried out in the name of every single citizen of the state of Ohio,” Bohnert said. “We are all culpable. Ohioans should be appalled at what happened, and especially at what happened in their names.”

Reporter Welsh-Huggins said by his timing this was one of the longest executions ever performed in Ohio.  He said that it took several minutes for the medical technician to declare McGuire dead, normally a very quick procedure.

This is just the latest problem during an execution in Ohio. A 2006 execution took nearly 90 minutes, with the inmate raising his head at one point to say that the drugs weren’t working. In September 2009, an inmate who’s still on death row, essentially survived his own execution after prison officials tried for two hours to find a usable vein for the lethal injection and couldn’t.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said in a statement that it will review McGuire’s execution, as it does of every execution.

The next execution is scheduled for March. 

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