The unusually long and animated execution of convicted killer Dennis McGuire of Preble County on Thursday has renewed debate about the death penalty in Ohio.
Attorneys for McGuire’s family said Friday they plan to file a court action to halt executions in Ohio, saying the way McGuire’s died violated constitutional protections from cruel and unusual punishment.
“The agony and terror of watching my dad suffocate to death lasted more than 19 minutes,” said Dennis R. McGuire, 32, the executed man’s son. “It was the most awful moment in my life to witness my dad’s execution. I can’t think of any other way to describe it than torture.”
McGuire was sentenced to die for the 1989 rape and murder of Joy Stewart of West Alexandria, who was nearly eight months pregnant when he raped her and cut her throat and then left her by the side of the road outside of Eaton.
State prison officials used a new mixture of drugs for the execution, which lasted more than 20 minutes – 10 minutes of which he intermittedly gasped and snorted, apparently struggling to breathe while unconscious – while McGuire’s family sobbed and Stewart’s family looked on silently.
The incident comes as state lawmakers on Wednesday plan to hear sponsor testimony for a bill in the Ohio House that would ban the death penalty and replace it with life without parole.
“If we as a society feel that it is wrong to kill people…it doesn’t make sense that we (the state) can do the same thing,” said state Rep. Terry Blair, R-Washington Twp., one of the bill’s co-sponsors who identified himself as “pro-life all the way along.”
Rep. Roland Winburn, D-Harrison Twp., whose district includes Preble County, said he believes life without parole is sufficient punishment. “Killing somebody is not going to bring back the victim,” he said.
Death penalty supporters include state Rep. Jim Becker, R-Clermont County, who also has a bill pending to expand the death penalty to certain sex crimes.
“It’s a matter of matching the penalty to the crime,” said Becker, though his bill lacks co-sponsors and therefore has little chance of proceeding.
Becker said executions should be “as humane and painless as possible” while also noting that when the U.S. Constitution was written, criminals were hanged to death with a rope.
‘cruel and unusual’
Jon Paul Rion of the Dayton law firm Rion, Rion and Rion, said he plans to file the suit on behalf of McGuire’s family next week, alleging the execution was “cruel and unusual.”
He said the suit will seek an injunction against use of the drugs that killed McGuire — which had never been used in an execution — as well as against all executions in the state. He would not expound on whether the suit will seek monetary damages, saying “it’s not about that.”
“The question is whether the state of Ohio should duplicate the actions of a criminal, and our answer is no,” he said. “Most civilized countries do not execute people.”
Gregory Lott is the next inmate scheduled for execution on March 19. Lott was convicted of breaking into an East Cleveland home, dousing the 82-year-old homeowner with lamp oil and setting him ablaze on July 12, 1988. The man died in a hospital 11 days later.
Ohio officials won’t say if they plan to use the same drugs on Lott that they used on McGuire, but their firmly adhered to protocol says it’s their backup method if the drug that was previously used is unavailable. The makers of that drug have prohibited its use in executions, making it unavailable. The protocols do not list a backup to the backup.
Ohio prison officials refused to comment on McGuire’s execution until their standard review of it.
McGuire’s children took turns Friday describing the experience of watching as their father gasped for air so loudly they could hear it through the glass partition. Amber McGuire, 28, covered her ears during the procedure.
“Nobody deserves to go through that,” Dennis R. McGuire said.
The family of McGuire’s victim Joy Stewart also witnessed the execution. During the entire procedure, they watched nearly soundlessly. They released a statement after the execution that appeared to written before it, but that addressed concerns raised by McGuire’s attorneys in a failed effort to stop the execution that the new drugs would cause “air hunger” and “agony and terror.”
“He is being treated far more humanely than he treated her,” the statement 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.
Lawmakers interviewed who support the death penalty said it should be done in as humane a method as possible, as much for the families watching and prison staff carrying it out as for the inmate.
Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee where testimony will be heard next week on the bill to end the death penalty, supports capital punishment.
“I believe it provides a respect for the rule of law (and) a deterrent effect,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Our local reporter and our Columbus Bureau will continue covering the debate over the death penalty in Ohio as state lawmakers consider changes to the lethal injection process. Get the latest political news on Twitter at @Ohio_Politics
More online: Reporter Josh Sweigart witnessed Dennis McGuire’s execution Thursday. Read his exclusive firsthand account at MyDaytonDailyNews.com/local