Ohio executes convict with untried drug cocktail

An Ohio inmate was put to death on Thursday using the untested drug cocktail that the state adopted after running out of its usual execution drug. Witnesses said the inmate appeared to struggle to breathe.

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction/AP
Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire was executed Thursday by means of a drug cocktail never before tried in the US.

An Ohio inmate was put to death Thursday using the untested drug cocktail that the state adopted as its new execution method, after running out of its usual execution drug earlier this year.

The inmate, Dennis McGuire, was the first prisoner to be executed in the United States using the new, lethal mix of two drugs. The execution followed a federal judge’s rejection of appeals from the inmate’s lawyers this week who said that the untried, controversial process could make the condemned suffocate.

The execution in southern Ohio took more than 15 minutes, during which Mr. McGuire appeared to gasp several times, his chest heaving, and made repeated snorting sounds, an Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution said. The reporter called it “one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999."

McGuire was sentenced to death for the brutal rape and fatal stabbing of Joy Stewart, a pregnant woman in her early 20s, in Ohio’s Preble County in 1989. He admitted his guilt in a letter to Gov. John Kasich (R) last month.

Ohio’s decision to use an untried injection process in McGuire’s execution comes after the state’s announcement in October that it lacked sufficient quantities of its execution drug, pentobarbital, to carry out any of the 140 executions on its docket. Supplies of pentobarbital, used in lethal injections in 13 states, have been waning at death houses since the drug’s Danish manufacturer put a full stop to selling the drug to US prisons in 2011. The European Union, of which Denmark is a member, opposes America's practice of capital punishment.

The manufacturer’s announcement has sent US states fumbling for alternative lethal injection methods. Some states have reached out to compounding pharmacies, a little-regulated branch of the pharmaceutical market, and others have cobbled together their own lethal cocktails. The hunt for new drugs has furnished a tense debate on whether executions using these alternative, and often untested, processes violate an inmate’s constitutional right to be spared cruel and unusual punishment.

In a hearing last week on McGuire’s coming execution, an anesthesiologist hired by defense attorneys told the court that the drugs could subject McGuire to “air hunger,” in which he struggles but fails to take a breath.

“McGuire will experience the agony and terror of air hunger as he struggles to breathe for five minutes after [executioners] intravenously inject him with the execution drugs," the lawyers said in a Jan. 6 court filing.

The state’s anesthesiologist had disputed that McGuire would experience air hunger, but also said that he did not know “how many minutes it will take the inmate to stop breathing," since "there is no science to guide me on exactly how long this is going to take," CNN reported.

The state’s argument also rested on the contention that although the US Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment, it does not preclude subjecting inmates that have been sentenced to death to some degree of pain.

"You're not entitled to a pain-free execution," Thomas Madden, an assistant Ohio attorney general, told the court last week, according to the AP.

Federal judge Gregory Frost announced on Monday that he would not stop the execution, saying the evidence was insufficient to prove that McGuire would experience “severe pain.” 

Pentobarbital, which is often used in the euthanasia of animals, is itself a controversial drug that anti-capital punishment advocates have said can produce extreme pain. It was introduced to death houses as a replacement to sodium thiopental, in 2011, after the Illinois-based producer of that drug refused to continue selling it to prisons, once the producer apparently became aware that it was used to put convicts to death.

Ohio's new lethal injection process uses two drugs: midazolam, a sedative; and hydromorphone, a painkiller.

McGuire was transferred to Ohio's death house on Wednesday and received a last meal of that included fried chicken, potato salad, butter pecan ice cream, and Coca-Cola, the AP said.

The Ohio inmate who was expected to be the first prisoner to be put to death with the new drug cocktail was Ronald Phillips. But he won an eight-month reprieve following a request to become an organ donor. The state is weighing his request during the reprieve. McGuire had tried but failed to obtain such a reprieve in the weeks before his execution, the AP reported.

The next execution in Ohio is scheduled for March 19. Ohio has executed a total of 391 inmates since 1803. 

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