Ohio conducted an experiment with its execution of Dennis McGuire last week. The state used an untested combination of drugs, the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone. What were the results? McGuire is dead, his punishment for a horrific crime, the rape and murder of Joy Stewart, 22 years old and 30 weeks pregnant. The state also has become the center of no small amount of global attention, its conduct of the death penalty problematic once again.
Another execution looms in March. Gov. John Kasich would do well to declare a moratorium on capital punishment until the state sorts through its process and formula for lethal injection. The state doesn’t need another episode that invites serious questions about whether its procedure amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
As the McGuire execution neared, two theories emerged about what would take place under the new combination of drugs. The state insisted that McGuire would face little distress and would not struggle to breathe, adding, though, that he wasn’t entitled to a “pain-free execution.” At the same time, a professor of anaesthesia at the Harvard medical school explained to a federal court that because of the flawed formula McGuire “will increasingly experience air hunger as the drugs suppress his ability to breathe.”
The professor was right, or that is how it seemed. According to news accounts, McGuire gasped for breath, made choking sounds and clenched his fists. Fifteen minutes after the lethal injection, the medical team asked for five minutes to be certain of the outcome. Ten minutes later, the death was officially declared.
An insufficient amount of sedative may have resulted in a death akin to an overdose by heroin or other narcotic. And if that was agonizing for McGuire? This isn’t about sympathy for a killer who inflicted much greater suffering. The death penalty involves the state acting in the name of the public, reflecting laws collectively enacted.
Ohio, and other states, chose the method of lethal injection because it represented a more humane approach to capital punishment — deliberative, careful, civilized, an approach that departs from the brutality of a killer.
This editorial page long has argued for abandoning the death penalty, and all of its complications, disparities and expense. Yet if the state is going to have a death penalty, it must meet the standards it has set. That is, in part, what a task force formed by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court has been seeking to achieve. Its report is due soon. The governor at least should postpone any executions until its recommendations are made and implemented.