U.S.

States pressured to end death penalty after 'horrifying' execution

Local ACLU chapter in Ohio calls on governor to halt executions while Montana group is suing over protocol

Dennis McGuire was put to death on Thursday in an execution that lasted 26 minutes.
Handout via Getty Images

Prison authorities in two states are facing increased pressure to halt executions immediately after a controversial execution last week using a previously untested drug mix left a condemned man, Dennis McGuire, gasping and snorting for close to half an hour.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote to Ohio's governor, John Kasich, Sunday urging him to use his executive authority ahead of five scheduled executions in 2014 after McGuire's execution on Thursday.

It took McGuire 26 minutes to die after the chemicals — intravenous doses of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone — began flowing into his body. McGuire was sentenced to die for raping and stabbing a pregnant newlywed to death in 1989, and his death was the longest execution of the 53 carried out in Ohio since capital punishment resumed 15 years ago.

Meanwhile, another group, the ACLU of Montana, is now suing Montana overs its execution method, which last year changed from a combination of three drugs to two. 

Though the drugs used in the Ohio execution are different from the ones called for in Montana's execution protocol, critics say the Ohio case illustrates the dangers of using untested drug combinations. 

No one has been executed in Montana since the state changed its lethal-injection method, and its two-drug combination has not been tested in the U.S., said ACLU of Montana attorney Anna Conley.

Executions should not be carried out without better knowledge of how the chemicals involved will work together, she said. "Much like Ohio, the two-drug protocol Montana would like to use has never been tested. We have no idea how it will work."

The organization argues the change from three drugs to two was done without medical or scientific advice and without public input.

"It's hard to know exactly what went wrong," Deborah Denno, a professor of law at Fordham University told Al Jazeera on Friday. "These drugs had never been used on a human being before, and experts had predicted that these very kinds of reactions could occur."

Assistant Attorney General Mark Fowler said in previous court filings that the inmates are rehashing arguments already ruled on and addressed by Department of Corrections changes and that they improperly bring up new arguments.

The new procedure in Montana calls for an injection of the barbiturate sodium pentothal to put the inmate into a coma, followed by an injection of a paralytic agent called pancuronium bromide.

The revisions eliminated a third drug, potassium chloride, which was used to stop an inmate's heart.

Sodium pentothal is no longer manufactured in the U.S., and it can't be imported. The Department of Corrections said another barbiturate, pentobarbital, can be substituted for sodium pentothal. 

The plaintiffs argued that pentobarbital is not an adequate substitute for sodium pentothal and the two-drug procedure creates the risk that the inmate will suffer before death.

The ACLU and the inmates have asked District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock to rule on their complaint without a trial. A ruling is not expected before mid-February.

'Horrified and aghast'

Meanwhile, an anesthesiologist who was an expert witness for McGuire’s defense team, told the Guardian that he was angry about what transpired during the Ohio execution.

"Initially I was angry, because I told them this would happen. Now I'm very sad about this. I'm also horrified and aghast. This was all totally unnecessary," said David Waisel, who is also an associate professor of anesthesia at Harvard medical school.

In his court testimony, he predicted that McGuire would remain "awake and actively conscious for up to five minutes" during the execution and said he was at "substantial, objectively intolerable risk for experiencing the agony and horrifying sensation of being unable to breath for a relevant time, as he slowly suffocates to death." 

"I told them that he was going to suffer the horror of suffocation for five minutes — in fact, it appears to have been much longer than that," Waisel told the Guardian. 

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press 

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