Barbaric: Grisly execution for Ohio murderer

There is little doubt that Joy Stewart, the 22 year old victim who was raped and murdered by Dennis McGuire back in 1989 suffered far more terror and pain than her killer did when he was finally executed by lethal injection late last night.

But the new, two drug cocktail used by the state of Ohio has elicited a debate over just what constitutes "humane" executions. It took at least 15 minutes for McGuire to die. And his struggles for air presented a grisly scene in the execution chamber for his family, and the family of Joy Stewart.

Manufacturers refuse to sell the drug used in previous executions - penobarbital - for the purpose of state sponsored killings. This forced the state to use a cocktail of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a morphine derivative.

The effects were not as hoped:

The chemicals began flowing about 10:29 a.m., and for a while, McGuire was quiet, closing his eyes and turning his face up and away from his family.

However, about 10:34 a.m., he began struggling. His body strained against the restraints around his body, and he 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.

McGuire eventually issued two final, silent gasps and became still. He was pronounced dead at 10:53 a.m.

Perhaps we should string them up by piano wire like the Iranians do and let them dangle. That method takes a matter of 5 minutes or so - much quicker than the experience of Mr. McGuire.

McGuire's attorney's warned beforehand that this kind of death was possible and sought a stay based on the "cruel and unusual punishment" clause of the Constitution.

McGuire's death by lethal injection at 10:53 a.m. might have been marked by the "air hunger" that his attorneys predicted in legal moves rejected by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and declined for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"What we suggested to the court did happen," Bohnert said. He refused to speculate on whether McGuire suffered and would not say if further legal action would be pursued under the U.S. constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Judge Gregory L. Frost of U.S. District Court in Cincinnati has in past cases 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 in 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."

Such issues could well be revisited before the execution of Gregory Lott, scheduled for March 19. Lott was convicted of attacking and setting fire to an 84-year-old Cleveland man in the victim's home in 1986.

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction officials had no comment on the execution. "Consistent with our policy, we will conduct an after-action review as we do after every execution," spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said.

Earlier yesterday, prisons Director Gary Mohr expressed confidence that the new drug regimen would result in a "humane, dignified execution consistent with our protocol and federal law."

It was none of that. It was barbaric. One can certainly be strongly in favor of the death penalty and find what happened in Ohio last night unacceptable. It is understandable, however, that Stewart's family would see things differently:

Stewart's family later issued a statement, saying, "There has been a lot of controversy regarding the drugs that are to be used in his execution, concern that he might feel terror, that he might suffer. As I recall the events preceding her death, forcing her from the car, attempting to rape her vaginally, sodomizing her, choking her, stabbing her, I know she suffered terror and pain. He is being treated far more humanely than he treated her."

The issue isn't whether the state treated McGuire more humanely than the killer treated his victim. If we're going to use that standard, bring out the piano wire or maybe attach electrodes to the killer's genitals and spend an hour or two torturing him. The family, blinded by grief, can be excused. Others, not so much.

It says a lot about who we are as a people how the law is executed in our name. By any reasonable standard, the state failed to carry out the sentence in accordance with state and federal constitutions. That, and not compassion for the killer, should be the yardstick by which we measure what happened in Ohio last night.

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