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Dennis McGuire Execution Puts Spotlight on Experimental Drugs Used to Kill America’s Condemned

The family of executed Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire is suing the state after the condemned man snorted and gasped and took over 15 minutes to die Tuesday after an experimental drug cocktail, used for the first time in Ohio, failed to work quickly enough.

Earlier in the week, lawyers for McGuire had sought to stop the execution, claiming that at the untested combination of midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone would cause “agony and terror” and force McGuire to spend his last moments gasping for air.

Even the state’s own expert admitted before the execution that he did not know how long it would take McGuire to die.

“I truly don’t know how many minutes it will take the inmate to stop breathing,” Dr. Mark Dershwitz said prior to the execution, “There is no science to guide me on exactly how long this is going to take.”

In the end, the slow death of McGuire was excruciating for his family to watch.

“Oh my God,” Amber McGuire exclaimed as she watched her father mouth “I love you,” one minute into the execution and then a few minutes later emit a snoring sound that he continued to make for several minutes while opening and closing his mouth.

A cough was the last sound McGuire made before he finally died in the longest execution since Ohio reinstated the death penalty in 1999.

Amazingly, according to Elisabeth Semel, a clinic professor of law and director of the Death Penalty Clinic at U.C. Berkeley School of Law, using untested cocktails to put people to death in America is common practice in the country’s death houses, due to a shortage of companies will to sell drugs intended to end someone’s life.

“This type of uncertainty is commonplace in executions today, as departments of correction scramble to find new drugs and new procedures to carry out executions in response to pharmaceutical companies taking steps to prevent the use of their products in executions,” she explained.

She added at the same time as states are passing laws to make execution drug suppliers secret, “states are changing their execution practices to include never-before-used drugs and compounded drugs with no public input or oversight.”

As a result, prisoners from around the country are being put to death with drugs with unreliable and untested outcomes and from pharmacies hidden and protected from the public eye.

In October 2013, Michael Yowell became the first to be executed in Texas using a new, compounded drug formula that his lawyers called, “a dramatic change from prior practice,” that was necessitated when the leading state for executions could no longer find the drug used for execution and resorted to a compounding pharmacy with few oversights.

Then, on Oklahoma condemned Michael Lee Wilson was administered a lethal dose of a compounded form of pentobarbital, once again sourced from a compounding pharmacy, on Jan. 9.

Wilson’s final words? “I feel my whole body burning.”

Photo Credit: Undated file photo/Ohio Dept. of Corrections

About the author

Tamar is a New York based freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in over 15 publications. You can catch her work regularly on Issue Hawk, Latest, Jspace, and MediaGlobal.