Execution brings about disturbing new questions

By Frank Lewis

January 17, 2014

By Frank Lewis


Ohio prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith had no comment on how the execution of Dennis McGuire at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville went on Thursday, but said a review will be conducted as usual.

So just when you may have thought that the questions concerning Ohio’s capital punishment system have all been answered, a new series of challenges is sure to be in the pipeline in the days ahead. In fact, a lawsuit is already in the process of being filed.

A few minutes before McGuire was put to death, Ohio Prison Director Gary Mohr said he believed the state’s planning would produce “a humane, dignified execution” consistent with the law.

Some people witnessing the execution, say it was anything but. The execution was done for the first time with a combination of only two drugs, describe a man gasping several times over what has now been confirmed to have been a period of nearly 25 minutes. McGuire, 53, reportedly made loud snorting noises during one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999, before being pronounced dead at 10:53 a.m. McGuire’s attorney, Allen Bohnert is referring to the executions “a failed, agonizing experiment,” saying also, “The people of the state of Ohio should be appalled at what was done here today in their names.”

Prison officials gave intravenous doses of two drugs, the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone, to put McGuire to death for the 1989 rape and fatal stabbing of a pregnant newlywed, Joy Stewart. The method was adopted after supplies of a previously used drug, penobarbital, dried up because the manufacturer declared it off limits for capital punishment, and SOCF Warden Donald Morgan reported to the ODRC that he had run out of that drug.

Stewart’s slaying went unsolved for 10 months until McGuire, jailed on an unrelated assault and hoping to improve his legal situation, told investigators he had information about the death. His attempts to pin the crime on his brother-in-law quickly unraveled, and he was accused of the killing. More than a decade later, DNA evidence confirmed McGuire’s guilt, and he acknowledged his responsibility in a letter to Kasich last month.

Family members of McGuire have also announced a lawsuit over McGuire’s death, which they are calling unconstitutional. And it’s almost certain lawyers will use McGuire’s Thursday execution to challenge Ohio’s plans to put a condemned Cleveland-area killer to death next month.

“All citizens have a right to expect that they will not be treated or punished in a cruel and unusual way,” defense attorney Jon Paul Rion, representing McGuire’s adult children, said Thursday. “Today’s actions violated that constitutional expectation.”

McGuire’s attorney called on Gov. John Kasich to impose a moratorium on future executions, as did a state death penalty opponent group.

The move will likely echo across the country as other states contemplate new drug methods, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

“Judges will now realize that the warnings being raised about these untried procedures are not just false alarms,” he said in an email. “States will now have more of a burden to show that they are using a well thought out best practice. “

McGuire’s lawyers had attempted last week to block his execution, arguing that the untried method could lead to a medical phenomenon known as “air hunger” and could cause him to suffer “agony and terror” while struggling to catch his breath.

An e-mail asking for a response from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction from the Daily Times was answered with the following statement from Smith: “Consistent with Ohio’s execution policy, and as we do following every execution, an after action review will be conducted.”

Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 252, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt. The Associated Press contributed to this story