The state of Ohio executed convicted murderer Dennis McGuire yesterday by lethal injection. Because some the drugs used in the lethal cocktail (usually three) are made overseas, and foreign countries are increasingly unwilling to export drugs used for genuine medical purposes to the U.S., where they can be used to kill people, American states are experimenting with other lethal drugs. One of those experiments involved McGuire, who was killed with a combination of drugs never before used for executions. The results were predictable: McGuire apparently died a horrible and painful death by suffocation.
A death row inmate who was executed by the state of Ohio on Thursday with an untried and untested combination of two medical drugs appeared to gasp and snort in a procedure that took an unusually long 25 minutes to kill him.
Dennis McGuire was pronounced dead at 10.53 am at the Southern Ohio Correctional facility in Lucasville. His lawyers had warned ahead of the proceeding that the experimental combination of the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone might subject him to “air hunger”, an insufficient flow of air into the lungs causing the sensation of suffocation.
. . . A reporter for the Associated Press, which sends a journalist to every execution in the US, wrote that McGuire “appeared to gasp several times during his prolonged execution … McGuire made several loud snorting or snoring sounds during the more than 15 minutes it appeared to take him to die. It was one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999. McGuire’s stomach rose and fell several times as he repeatedly opened and shut his mouth.”
Another eye-witness report from the Columbus Dispatch provided concurring evidence. Dispatch reporter Alan Johnson wrote that four minutes into the procedure, “McGuire started struggling and gasping loudly for air, making snorting and choking sounds which lasted for at least 10 minutes. His chest heaved and his left fist clinched as deep, snorting sounds emanated from his mouth.”
Ohio’s department of corrections originally put the official length of the execution at 15 minutes, but later in the day revised that to 25 minutes.
McGuire’s defence attorney, Allen Bohnert, said that according to reports he had been given from witnesses in the chamber, the prisoner was gasping for breath from about 10.30 am to 10.44 am. At some point, witnesses told Bohnert, McGuire tried to sit up, turned his head toward his family members who were witnessing, and spoke to them. One witness described the scene as “ghastly”.
Midazolam is a benzodiazepine used to control seizures, insomnia,and other conditions requiring anxiolytic drugs. According to the Guardian, the drug is in short supply in hospitals and will now be in even shorter supply. A typical dose for an execution is 500 mg: 100 times the dose for a patient. The use of this drug for executions—or any drug that is prescribed for “normal” medical conditions—is opposed by U.S. physicians as well as by foreign governments and companies that refuse to help the U.S. execute criminals by supplying the requisite drugs. As the Guardian notes:
Ohio’s recourse to the midazolam-hydromorphone combination was forced by a shortage of pentobarbital, a drug originally manufactured in Denmark, which has been subjected to strict export licences that prevent sale to US departments of correction. A European-wide boycott, designed to ensure that medical drugs are not used to kill people, has begun to bite across the 32 states that still have the death penalty on their books.
Ohio ran out of pentobarbital in September.
The adoption of midazolam as an alternative drug – not only in Ohio, but also in Florida, one of the most active death penalty states – has led to expressions of anger and disgust by leading physicians in the US. Joel Zivot, the medical director of the cardio-thoracic and vascular intensive care unit at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and an opponent of the use of anesthetics in lethal injections, called the use of midazolam in executions “appalling and unethical”, and said, “The public should be concerned that [the] medicines that are used to help them are being diverted instead to kill people.”
The human rights group Reprieve, which has been a key influence behind the European boycott, has accused Ohio and Florida of stockpiling midazolam to the detriment of medical services.
The U.S. is the only First World country in the West that still practices capital punishment. Wikipedia reports that 58 nations still practice it occasionally, but in 2011 Amnesty International listed only 21 countries known to have executed people. Here’s that list of shame, which puts the U.S. in pretty dire company:
What is the purpose of executing people? The only one I can see is precisely the one that we should not be using: retribution. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” says the scripture, and many people agree. Indeed, that’s clear from the Guardian report, where the family of the victim wants to see the perpetrator suffer, and the court apparently doesn’t care:
In court proceedings last week, an Ohio state prosecutor said bluntly: “You’re not entitled to a pain-free execution,” and a judge allowed the execution to proceed.
. . . Members of Stewart’s family were present at his execution, and before it they put out a statement that said the manner in which McGuire was put to death was more humane than the brutal way he had murdered Joy.
Well, if that’s the case, why use drugs: why not just garrote the guy slowly? Why even attempt to give him a “humane execution? Why not just subject him to a slow and brutal murder, and why not have him raped with a broomstick in the process?
Don’t get me wrong: McGuire was a horrible person: he raped and murdered 22-year-old Joy Stewart in 1989, and Stewart was 30 weeks into pregnancy, so her fetus also died. The guy certainly deserved to be removed from society, probably for life. In all likelihood he could do it again, and we need to get such people out of our society both for our own protection and to serve as deterrents for others. Without punishment, people would commit more crimes, as Steve Pinker famously pointed out when recounting the wave of crime that followed a 1969 police strike in Montreal.
But execution doesn’t have any salutary effects on society. It serves only to satisfy people’s brutal feelings for retribution. Further, it costs more than imprisonment without parole (my solution for people like McGuire), and there is always the chance that someone executed could be exculpated by later evidence. (This is becoming increasingly frequent in the era of DNA evidence.) You can’t free someone in those circumstances if you’ve already killed them.
Further, if McGuire, as I believe, had no choice in his actions, and could not have refrained from killing Stewart, does he really deserve a painful execution for that, and to lose his life? Aren’t there better ways of dealing with people whose backgrounds have driven them to do things about which they had no choice? The motive of retribution, unlike that of deterrence, sequestration, and rehabilitation, is based on the supposition that the criminal had a choice in what he did. If you’re a determinist, or even a compatibilist, you know that’s not true. The list of countries above includes many that are religious, and that’s no surprise, for Abrahamic religions are based on the supposition of libertarian free will, and that presumption that you have a choice about murdering is a natural partner with retributive capital punishment.
If McGuire had been mentally ill, he would not have been killed. In that way the law recognizes that people driven by forces they can’t control shouldn’t be punished by execution. They are usually put in secure mental facilities, where attempts at “rehabilitation” are made. Those often fail, but that’s because serious studies on how to rehabilitate people are rarely done.
But McGuire’s actions are also the result of his physical constitution and his environment: things he couldn’t control either. He had no choice to refrain from a horrible act. What is the justification for killing him but not those who “don’t know the difference between right and wrong” or “who aren’t competent to think about the consequences of their act”? None of those people could have behaved other than the way they did. Further, we can’t even use the excuse of deterrence to execute people, for the death penalty is not a reliable deterrent to capital crimes (see here, here, here, here and here), and is opposed by most law-enforcement organizations in the U.S. And even if there were marginal effects on deterrence, do those outweigh the possible execution of innocent people?
The death penalty is one of the consequences of not thinking seriously about free will. Most rational societies have abandoned executions as a brutal and useless exercise. The United States should, too. So long as we kill people like McGuire, don’t really care much whether they die painfully or not, and think that they deserve what they get because they chose the wrong action, we should have no place at the table of civilized countries.