Botched Ohio Execution Raises Concerns About Lethal Injection Drugs

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On January 16, Dennis McGuire struggled, made guttural noises, gasped for air and choked for about 10 minutes before being declared dead after Ohio subjected him to a never-before-used two-drug execution method.

Ohio had run out of its supply of pentobarbital, which is no longer available because its European manufacturers will not sell it for use in executions. It intravenously injected a combination of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a morphine derivative, which was included in the state’s execution policy but only as a backup involving intramuscular injection. Anesthesiologists warned these drugs would produce a condition called air hunger, in which the gasping victim is unable to absorb oxygen.

According to a Columbus Dispatch reporter who was there, the drugs began flowing through the IV at about 10:29 a.m. About 10:34 a.m., Mr. McGuire began struggling, strained against the restraints around his body, and "repeatedly gasped for air, making snorting and choking sounds for about 10 minutes. His chest and stomach heaved; his left hand, which he had used minutes earlier to wave goodbye to his family, clenched in a fist." After two final, silent gasps, he became still. He was pronounced dead at 10:53 a.m., 25 minutes after the execution began, making this one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999.

States have been experimenting with new drug combinations and with alternative, sometimes illegal means for obtaining lethal injection drugs. The week before Mr. McGuire's execution, Michael Lee Wilson was executed in Oklahoma using a cocktail of pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy; vecuronium bromide, a paralytic; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. His last words, coming about 12 seconds after the injections were administered, were, “I feel my whole body burning.”

In 2008, the United States Supreme Court in Baze v. Rees ruled that Kentucky's lethal injection procedure did not violate the Constitution. That procedure used a three-drug cocktail made up of drugs that are no longer available, calling into question whether untried, experimental methods like the one used to execute Mr. McGuire violate the Constitution.

Federal judge Gregory L. Frost in Cincinnati is among those who have questioned Ohio’s execution procedures. “Ohio has been in a dubious cycle of defending often indefensible conduct, subsequently reforming its protocol when called on that conduct, and then failing to follow through on its own reforms,” he wrote in a separate case last November. “The court is not without potential concerns regarding some of the choices that Ohio has apparently made or is contemplating making in its execution plans.”

The Council of Europe's General Rapporteur on the abolition of the death penalty, Marina Schuster, issued a statement last Friday expressing "outrage at the cruel and inhuman execution of Dennis McGuire in Lucasville, Ohio, by an ‘experimental’ death cocktail replacing other drugs whose manufacturers have refused to make them available for the purpose of capital punishment."

“For a quarter of an hour," the statement reads, "Mr. McGuire suffered horribly, in front of his wife and children, from pain and panic caused by drug-induced breathing distress. No execution method is ever humane, but this terribly botched state killing shows, for all to see, what a cruel and inhuman punishment the death penalty is. This punishment has no place in a civilized society. I call on the American people to protest against such atrocities being committed in their name.”