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An Unsettling Death in Ohio

It’s difficult to verify whether an execution is botched, since there is no opportunity to interview the victim after the fact, but it’s beginning to look like something went seriously wrong with the execution of a man on death row in Ohio.

Because the state was low on the conventional lethal injection cocktail, the executioner injected Dennis McGuire with a combination of chemicals that the state hoped would be approximately equivalent. But Mr. McGuire’s death took longer than usual and his struggling and choking suggested that the new combination was painful and might have constituted cruel and unusual punishment. As reported in The New York Times, Mr. McGuire’s daughter witnessed her father’s stomach spasm, and his hands contort into fists, “He started making all these horrible, horrible noises, and at that point, that’s when I covered my eyes and my ears.”

There’s no mystery as to why Ohio found itself running low on the traditional three-drug lethal injections. Many of the components of the cocktail are manufactured outside the United States and several international companies have refused to allow their drugs to be shipped to the United States if they will be used to end a life. As a result, the US has been experimenting, most recently in Mr. McGuire’s case, but also by using drug combinations approved to euthanize animals, but not intended for humans.

The real mystery is why Ohio, faced with a shortage of drugs, found it so urgent to put Mr. McGuire to death that they turned to an experimental, poorly-tested combination of drugs. Pharmaceutical companies will make “compassionate use” exemptions to allow patients dying of cancer to take a chance on a drug that might save their lives when all other hope is gone; but why would Ohio find killing on schedule as desperate a need as saving a life?

Both the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole remove a prisoner from ordinary life, and neutralize the threat he or she could pose to fellow citizens. Death is reserved for the gravest crimes, but it is not applied in the spirit of Hammurabi; we do not torture prisoners or try to balance the scales of suffering.

The current lethal injection protocols were inspired by the euthanasia of pets and could be interpreted in the same spirit. Here are the people who couldn’t be saved—who like Old Yeller had somehow become rabidly dangerous—and who we needed to let go, since a cure was out of our reach. But that peaceful image is contradicted by the medical reality of the effects of the injection.

The normal drug cocktail is intended more for the comfort of the spectators than the victim. One of the component drugs, Pancuronium bromide, is a muscle relaxant. It is meant to hasten death by paralyzing the respiratory muscles, making it impossible to breath. However, the paralysis is not limited to the chest, so the muscle relaxant masks any signs of agony that might alert the observers, as in Mr. McGuire’s case, that something is amiss.

The guillotine looks monstrous and savage, and leaves spectators bespeckled by blood, but is believed to be more merciful to the victim and is even favored by the inventor of the three-drug legal injection. Mr. McGuire’s uncomfortable death exposes the illusion that we can usher criminals out of this world simply and peacefully. If we design our execution protocols to obscure the reality of the death we are inflicting, we must ask whether we can honestly endorse a sentence we can’t stand to see unveiled.

about the author

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of two books: Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option. Her writing has appeared in The American Interest, First Things, and The Washington Post. You can follow her at leahlibresco.com.

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