The PJ Tatler

Just What Constitutes 'Humane' Execution?

Dennis McGuire, convicted in 1989 of raping and murdering a young, pregnant woman, was executed in Ohio last night. His death took 26 minutes from the time the experimental cocktail of lethal drugs was injected until he was pronounced dead.

The two drugs used — midazolam, a sedative; and hydromorphone, a morphine derivative — were employed because penobarbital, the drug formerly used by the state, was unavailable due to a manufacturer’s refusal to sell the drug for the purposes of execution. McGuire’s lawyers, trying to get a stay of execution from a federal judge, warned that the drugs might cause “air hunger” which would result in horrific suffering by the killer.

Authorities dismissed that possibility prior to the execution:

Earlier yesterday, prisons Director Gary Mohr expressed confidence that the new drug regimen would result in a “humane, dignified execution consistent with our protocol and federal law.”

It was hardly that:

The chemicals began flowing about 10:29 a.m., and for a while, McGuire was quiet, closing his eyes and turning his face up and away from his family.

However, about 10:34 a.m., he began struggling. His body strained against the restraints around his body, and he repeatedly gasped for air, making snorting and choking sounds for about 10 minutes. His chest and stomach heaved; his left hand, which he had used minutes earlier to wave goodbye to his family, clenched in a fist.

McGuire eventually issued two final, silent gasps and became still. He was pronounced dead at 10:53 a.m.

It should be noted that there is no evidence yet that injecting the two drugs led to Mr. McGuire’s 26 minute ordeal. Nor can anyone say whether McGuire felt terror, or pain, or suffered psychologically at all. The powerful sedative and morphine derivative may have made him totally unaware of what was happening to him.

The family of the victim, 22-year-old Joy Stewart, had an understandable reaction:

Stewart’s family later issued a statement, saying, “There has been a lot of controversy regarding the drugs that are to be used in his execution, concern that he might feel terror, that he might suffer. As I recall the events preceding her death, forcing her from the car, attempting to rape her vaginally, sodomizing her, choking her, stabbing her, I know she suffered terror and pain. He is being treated far more humanely than he treated her.”

But is that the standard we should use to judge how humanely the state kills in our name? If so, why not just string the guilty up by piano wire or attach electrodes to his genitals and torture him for a few hours before executing him?


You an be a strong advocate for the death penalty and find what happened in Ohio last night totally unacceptable. We are better than this. Nor is it a question of having compassion for a stone-cold killer. McGuire deserved his fate:

Stewart, of West Alexandria, a small town in Preble County about 20 miles west of Dayton, was 30 weeks pregnant in 1989 when McGuire raped her, choked her and slashed her throat so deeply that it severed both her carotid artery and jugular vein. At some point, her unborn child died, too, probably in the woods near Eaton where her body was found the next day by two hikers. The baby’s name would have been Carl, his mother’s grave marker shows.

Her husband, Kenny, committed suicide within a year after her murder.

By any yardstick, McGuire’s ultimate punishment was not the kind of example we want to set for enforcing and upholding the rule of law. Death was deserved, but need it have been so cruel? We’re not trying to exact revenge or give the family of Mrs. Stewart satisfaction. If that were the case, bring out the electrodes and perhaps drag out the rack as well. Such emotionalism may be satisfying but has no place in a nation ruled by laws, not passions.

Executions should be as painless and quick as possible — not for the killer’s sake, but for ours. You can hold no compassion whatsoever for the murderer, but appreciate that his manner of death at the hands of the state is an expression of our will, our right to protect ourselves from the Dennis McGuires who kill without conscious thought and without mercy. Expressing that will should reflect the highest values and morals of our society. The state of Ohio failed in that regard last night.