July 3, 2014
Wendy Thompson contributed to this article
After eating his last requested meal of roast beef, fried chicken, fried potatoes with onions, potato salad, and butter pecan ice cream, inmate number A305-892 was escorted from his cell on death row into the execution room. What happened after he was strapped to the table and administered a dose of lethal injection has sent the country into a whirlwind of controversy regarding the “humaneness” of capital punishment.
Before his execution at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility on January 16, 2014, 53-year-old Dennis McGuire had served almost 20 years on death row for the 1989 rape and murder of a 22-year-old pregnant woman named Joy Stewart. McGuire was sentenced to death in 1994 after forensic evidence concluded that he was the killer.
While methods used in capital punishment vary from state to state, lethal injection is the only option in the state of Ohio. With this procedure, the inmate is secured to a table and typically administered three drugs: sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Administering this sequence of drugs causes the person to lose consciousness, become paralyzed and finally, die of cardiac arrest as the third drug stops their heart. If the process goes accordingly, it should take the person between two and eight minutes to die, but in McGuire’s case, something went terribly wrong.
According to the report, “After being injected at 10:29 a.m., about four minutes later McGuire started struggling and gasping loudly for air, making snorting and choking sounds, which lasted for at least 10 minutes. His chest heaved and his left fist clinched as deep, snorting sounds emanated from his mouth.”
Witnesses of the execution made claims that, “He appeared to be in pain.” When all was said and done, it had taken McGuire approximately 25 minutes to die, making it one of the lengthiest executions since the state of Ohio resumed the death penalty in 1999.
The public outcry and the media uproar that followed pertained to the drugs which were used to carry out McGuire’s execution. Rather than administering the drugs that are typical in lethal injection procedures, Ohio officials used an untested combination of drugs that had never been used before. The medley of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone that took McGuire’s life has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Despite the backlash, authorities insist that the execution was carried out in a proper manner. “The Department remains confident that it conducted the execution in a humane, constitutional way and that the inmate was completely unconscious and felt no pain,” Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spokeswoman Jo-Ellen Smith said in a statement.
This botched execution has left people wondering whether or not capital punishment is at all humane, and furthermore in the case of McGuire, did his execution meet the criteria of cruel and unusual punishment?
In just the last decade, seven U.S. states have discontinued the use of capital punishment and there has even been talk amongst several states about reverting back to old methods such as the gas chamber or the firing squad. Currently, only Oklahoma allows the firing squad option, and this is only if and when lethal injection and electrocution are found unconstitutional; while the gas chamber is used only in Arizona, Missouri and Wyoming.
While the question remains as to whether this is a humane way of ending someone’s life, many have brought up the subject of the victim, Joy Stewart. Stewart’s sister Carol Avery, who was present at the time of the execution said, “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, leaving her to bleed out — I know she suffered terror and pain…He is being treated far more humanely than he treated her.”
McGuire’s family has since filed suit seeking damages and rallying for the elimination of the drugs used in his execution in any future lethal injections.
Jon Paul Rion, who represents McGuire’s family said, “The physical evidence supports there was conscious pain in this case.”
McGuire’s children and wife were also present for his execution, and in his final statement he spoke to them as well as to the victim’s family. “I’d like to say to Joy’s family, thanks for the letter and the kind words,” he said. “They meant a lot … To my children, I love you. I’m going to heaven. I will see you when you get there.”
In a case involving untested drugs and a botched execution, the people of America are left wondering, did the punishment fit the crime? Some may ask, “Was the way Dennis McGuire was put to death ultimately humane?” Others might ask a more relevant question: “Was the way McGuire was put to death the most humane way to end the life of a convicted murderer, a man who brutally murdered a young, innocent woman and her unborn baby?” In light of his heinous crimes, should we even care…about the murderer? If we do, where does that leave the innocent young woman and whose life was more important?