The family of Dennis McGuire will sue the state of Ohio after a never-before-used drug cocktail took nearly 25 minutes to put him to death Thursday.
McGuire was given a lethal dose of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a derivative of morphine, at 10:29 a.m. About five minutes later he began gasping and choking, and was not pronounced dead until 10:53.
“The people of the state of Ohio should be appalled by what was done in their name,” said Allen Bohnert, one of McGuire's federal public defenders, who called the use of the drugs a "failed, agonizing experiment by the state of Ohio."
McGuire's attorneys, arguing against the use of the new drugs, suggested the death might cause "air hunger," an acute breathlessness. A federal lawsuit will charge McGuire's 8th Amendment rights were violated and that the method of his death constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
“Shortly after the warden buttoned his jacket to signal the start of the execution, my dad began gasping and struggling to breathe,” Amber McGuire said in a statement. “I watched his stomach heave. I watched him try to sit up against the straps on the gurney. I watched him repeatedly clench his fist. It appeared to me he was fighting for his life but suffocating.
But the family of McGuire's victim, Joy Stewart, said McGuire was being treated far better than he treated Stewart when he raped, choked and stabbed her in 1989.
"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," said Stewart's family in a statement. "As I recall the events preceding her death, forcing her from the car, attempting to rape her vaginally, sodomizing her, choking her, stabbing her, I know she suffered terror and pain. He is being treated far more humanely than he treated her.”
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a request from McGuire's attorneys to halt the execution using the "experimental" drugs, and their appeal was declined for review by the Supreme Court. Pentobarbital, which had been the common drug of choice for lethal injections, is no longer available as manufacturers won't sell it for use in executions.
Alan Johnson, a reporter for the Colombus Dispatch, was present for McGuire's execution, and described the scene:
The process began as dozens of executions in Ohio have, with the insertion of IV needles in McGuire’s arms. He then offered a brief, tearful statement: “I’d like to say I’m sorry to Joy’s family and thanks for the letter. The kind words mean a lot.
“To my children, I love you,” he said. “I’m going to heaven. I’ll see you when you get there.”
The chemicals began flowing about 10:29 a.m., and for a while, McGuire was quiet, closing his eyes and turning his face up and away from his family.
However, about 10:34 a.m., he began struggling. His body strained against the restraints around his body, and he repeatedly gasped for air, making snorting and choking sounds for about 10 minutes. His chest and stomach heaved; his left hand, which he had used minutes earlier to wave goodbye to his family, clenched in a fist.
McGuire eventually issued two final, silent gasps and became still. He was pronounced dead at 10:53 a.m.
Joy Stewart was 30 weeks pregnant when McGuire raped, sodomized and choked her. He slashed her throat, cutting so deeply both her carotid artery and jugular vein were severed. Her unborn child died as well, likely in the time between her body was dumped in the woods and when it was found the next day.
Her husband, Kenny, committed suicide less than a year after Stewart was killed. Her baby's name, had he lived, would have been Carl.