Family Promises Lawsuit Over 25-Minute Execution

The 53-year-old McGuire was sentenced for the 1989 rape and fatal stabbing of Joy Stewart in western Ohio's Preble County.(Photo: ODRC)
The 53-year-old McGuire was sentenced for the 1989 rape and fatal stabbing of Joy Stewart in western Ohio's Preble County.(Photo: ODRC)

A condemned man appeared to gasp several times and took an unusually long time to die — more than 20 minutes — in an execution carried out Thursday with a combination of drugs never before tried in the U.S.

Dennis McGuire’s attorney Allen Bohnert called the convicted killer’s death “a failed, agonizing experiment” and added: “The people of the state of Ohio should be appalled at what was done here today in their names.”

An attorney for McGuire’s family said it plans to sue the state over what happened.

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.

McGuire, 53, made loud snorting noises during one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999. Nearly 25 minutes passed between the time the lethal drugs began flowing and McGuire was pronounced dead at 10:53 a.m.

Executions under the old method were typically much shorter and did not cause the kind of sounds McGuire made.

Ohio prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith had no comment on how the execution went but said a review will be conducted as usual. The agency didn’t release a timeline of McGuire’s execution, breaking with the usual practice of providing it the same day, and said it was being reviewed and likely would be available Friday.

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, the powerful sedative pentobarbital, dried up because the manufacturer declared it off limits for capital punishment.

The execution is certain to launch a new round of federal lawsuits over Ohio’s injection procedure. The state has five more executions scheduled this year, with the next one Feb. 19.

States will try at all costs to find supplies of pentobarbital because courts likely will demand more proof of any new drugs’ reliability, 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.

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

What was particularly unusual Thursday was the five minutes or so that McGuire lay motionless on the gurney after the drugs began flowing, followed by a sudden snort and then more than 10 minutes of irregular breathing and gasping. Normally, movement comes at the beginning and is followed by inactivity.

“Oh, my God,” his daughter, Amber McGuire, said as she watched his final moments.

Dayton defense lawyer Jon Paul Rion said the family is deeply disturbed by McGuire’s execution, which it believes violated his constitutional rights.

“All citizens have a right to expect that they will not be treated or punished in a cruel and unusual way,” Rion said.

In pressing for the execution to go ahead, state Assistant Attorney General Thomas Madden had argued that while the U.S. Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment, “you’re not entitled to a pain-free execution.”

U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost sided with the state. But at the request of McGuire’s lawyers, he ordered officials to photograph and preserve the drug vials, packaging and syringes.

The selection of drugs for use in executions in the U.S. involves more than just considerations of effectiveness. It is complicated by the politics of the death penalty, questions of medical ethics and the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

In Ohio’s case, the state in recent years used pentobarbital, a form of which is used to put down cats and dogs. But the state’s supply ran out after the manufacturer refused to allow its use in executions.

Some executions with pentobarbital ran into problems, but they involved difficulties inserting the needle, not trouble with the effectiveness of the drug.

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.

McGuire, strapped to the gurney as members of the execution medical team inserted intravenous needles into his arms, spoke several times. The prisons spokeswoman said he repeatedly thanked the leader of the execution team.

McGuire then thanked Stewart’s family members, who witnessed the execution, for their “kind words” in a letter he apparently received from them.

“I’m going to heaven. I’ll see you there when you come,” he said.

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.

The death row inmate’s lawyers argued McGuire was mentally, physically and sexually abused as a child and had impaired brain function that made him prone to act impulsively.

“We have forgiven him, but that does not negate the need for him to pay for his actions,” Stewart’s family said in a statement after the execution.

  • mousepotato66

    Why should he NOT experience pain and terror? Didn’t his victim?

    • chiliboots

      It’s “cruel & unusual” punishment; that’s why.

      • Alyson Trent

        so is the last moments of a pregnant woman being stabbed and raped.

  • Gordan

    I am fine with you reporting 12 times a day on how this murderer/rapist died. I think that you should also remind everyone the details of the victims last hours on earth. The duration and nature of the rape and the time it took that poor women to die at the hands of this animal (without sedatives). Then the public can decide who needs their sympathy. I wonder if she felt terror and agony.

    • Alyson Trent

      they also often leave out that she was 30 weeks pregnant at the time. at 30 weeks a baby is viable outside the womb

  • lisa mandeville

    This was a dosing error and not a flaw in the drug combo itself, who ever dosed this guy made a serious error, enough midazolam and hydromorphone would have killed him in 3-5 min. They use midazolam in the OR to induce people, the best part about midazolam is that it causes amnesia around the time of induction so you cannot remember even being induced. If this two drug combo was dosed right it would have induced him just like in the OR and then depressed his breathing in the brain stem to the point he would not have tried to breath. 25 min is a long death however there is only speculation on his anguish, people die of drug overdoses everyday, have you ever heard a single doctor say “they must have suffered”? This guy was not even aware due to the drugs he was given. If the family of the killer can sue the state for this death then the victims family should be allowed to hold the killers family legally liable for the victims cruel and unusual death, I am fairly certain she was not afforded the luxury of dieing unaware and pain free.