The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

Local News

January 19, 2014

Unclear future for executions

Ohio man gasps for breath for 26 minutes

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio’s latest experience with putting an inmate to death raises new question about the ability of states to carry out executions in constitutional fashion.

A gasping, snorting Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die after the chemicals began flowing Thursday — the longest execution of the 53 carried out in Ohio since capital punishment resumed 15 years ago, according to an Associated Press analysis.

McGuire’s adult children said it amounted to torture, with the convicted killer’s son, also named Dennis, saying: “Nobody deserves to go through that.”

Whether McGuire felt any pain was unclear. His death — unconsciousness, followed by apparent obstructed breathing — followed the prediction of one state expert.

The question may center on states’ tolerance for a constitutional method that is difficult to observe, said Doug Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and death penalty expert.

“How much will Ohio care, how much will the rest of the country care, that it seems that what we now have discovered is Ohio is using a method that gets the job done, but looks ugly,” Berman said. “We don’t know if it actually was ugly. We just know that it looked ugly.”

States are in a bind for two main reasons: European companies have cut off supplies of certain execution drugs because of death-penalty opposition overseas. And states can’t simply switch to other chemicals without triggering legal challenges from defense attorneys.

“There’s only so many times you can say we’re going to try a new method, or try something different, where at this point it’s just going to invite a lot of skepticism,” said Fordham University law professor and lethal injection expert Deborah Denno.

She added: “There’s a dead-end we’ve never seen before with lethal injection.”

In light of what happened in Ohio, “states will now have more of a burden to show that they are using a well-thought-out best practice,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which doesn’t take a stand for or against capital punishment.

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