An attorney for the family of a killer whose execution by lethal injection Thursday was marked by several minutes of unprecedented gasping and unusual sounds plans to sue the state over what happened.
Jon Paul Rion is a member of a state Supreme Court panel examining possible changes to Ohio's death penalty law. He says Dennis McGuire's family is deeply disturbed by his execution and believes it violated his constitutional rights. McGuire was executed for raping and killing a woman in 1989. It took nearly 25 minutes for him to die, an unusually long time based on prior executions. Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports.
“Clearly this did not go the way the prison system wanted.”
Associated Press reporter Andrew Welsh Huggins is one of the most experienced journalists in Ohio when it comes to executions – he’s written a book about the death penalty in Ohio and has witnessed about a dozen executions, including the lethal injection of 53 year old Dennis McGuire. Columbus Dispatch reporter Alan Johnson has seen 18 executions, and was in Lucasville for McGuire’s execution as well.
“It was just um, unpleasant to watch, to be candid.”
These veteran reporters were both at this execution because it was historic – it’s the first time ever an inmate anywhere would be put to death with a mix of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone. Johnson says McGuire told his family he loved them and thanked the family of his victim, Joy Stewart, for a letter they sent him. McGuire had raped and killed Stewart, who was eight months pregnant, after meeting her at a friend’s house in 1989. Johnson says 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 says McGuire’s body heaved up a bit as he was coughing and gasping, perhaps as a natural reaction to his respiration being shut down. Welsh-Huggins says there’s no way to know whether McGuire was in pain or in terror – or completely unconscious.
“We don’t know what he was experiencing. We have no idea if he was in pain and probably will never know. This obviously is going to become part of the lawsuit about Ohio’s lethal injection process very quickly.”
McGuire’s attorney Allen Bohnert is the lead prosecutor in that lawsuit, which has been going on since 2004 and has more than 90 inmates as plaintiffs.
“The short version is, Ohio’s experiment failed.”
Bohnert says what happened was entirely consistent with what he had argued in court would happen, and he says it backs up the concerns that a federal judge expressed about the process when he allowed the execution to go forward. Bohnert says now there should be no question that this method isn’t right.
“Ohioans need to understand that the death penalty is carried out in the name of every single citizen of the state of Ohio. We are all culpable. Ohioans should be appalled at what happened, and especially at what happened in their names.”
Welsh-Huggins says by his timing, this was one of the longest executions ever performed in Ohio, and he says he noted that it took several minutes for the medical technician to declare McGuire dead, when normally that’s a very quick procedure. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said in a statement that a review will be conducted, as it is after every execution. The next execution is scheduled for March. This is the latest problem to come up in 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.