Courts Human Rights Politics

Ohio execution of Dennis McGuire raises questions of legality

At 10:53 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 16, Dennis McGuire was pronounced dead—more than 15 minutes after being injected with Ohio’s experimental combination of drugs, the first to be used in the United States.

In addition to the unusually long execution, McGuire’s visible response to the drugs has many questioning if the new mix of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller, is a cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Columbus Dispatch reporter Alan Johnson described the execution in an interview where he said that McGuire seemed to struggle for breath for 10 to 13 minutes.

“I don’t know if it was air hunger or what it was, but all I’m going to tell you is that he gasped deeply, it was kind of a rattling, guttural sound; there was a snorting through his nose a couple times; he definitely appeared to be choking,” Johnson said.

The risk of “air hunger” was one of the arguments made by public defender Allen Bohnert in the appeals process. However, Ohio Assistant Attorney General Thomas Madden, while arguing for the execution to be upheld, had previously said, “You’re not entitled to a pain-free execution.”

In response to the unusual progress of McGuire’s execution, Bohnert said in an Associated Press article that “the people of the state of Ohio should be appalled at what was done here today in their names,” and is calling for Gov. John Kasich to implement a moratorium on Ohio’s executions.

Other anti-death penalty groups are also pushing for the moratorium, with the hope that this will bring Ohio one step step closer to banning capital punishment.

“Ohio is going to repeal the death penalty. We’ve seen six states in six years repeal the death penalty … and yesterday’s execution is just another sign that it’s a broken system,” said Allison Smith, the director of communication and development for Ohioans to Stop Executions.

From 2007 to 2013, six states abolished capital punishment, raising the total number of states without the death penalty to 18, and two members of the Ohio House of Representatives are pushing legislation that would abolish capital punishment in the state.

The change in Ohio’s execution process was necessitated when the producer of the state’s previous drug of choice, pentobarbital, banned it from use in executions.

A timeline of McGuire’s death has not been released and Ohio’s prison system is reviewing the execution. McGuire was convicted of raping and fatally stabbing Joy Stewart, a pregnant newlywed in 1989. In his final minutes, McGuire reportedly thanked Stewart’s family for a letter he received from them and told his children, “I’m going to heaven. I’ll see you there when you come.”


About the author

Olivia Miltner

Olivia is the co-director of research and development at The New Political. She is in her fourth year at Ohio University majoring in journalism and war and peace. Olivia has interned at WOSU’s 89.7 NPR News and the Central Ohio American Red Cross. She is from Columbus, Ohio, and she loves animal videos. Previously, Olivia was the editor in chief, the state editor and a state writer. Follow her on Twitter @omiltner.

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