Lethal Injection

Lethal Injection, Moral Compunction

Becky Huting, MJLST Staff

Ohio inmate and convicted murderer Dennis McGuire was recently executed by lethal injection with a new combination of drugs. Ohio had run out of the standard drug pentobarbital because European manufacturers like Danish-based Lundbeck had imposed stringent restrictions on sales, prohibiting distribution to prisons that perform executions. In response to the shortage, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction amended its policy to allow for the use of midazolam and hydromorphone, a combination that had never been used before in an execution.

MacGuire’s lawyers argued that he would “suffocate to death in agony and terror.” The State’s expert Dr. Mark Dershwitz indicated that he had no way of knowing the duration of time before the drugs would take effect. “There is no science to guide me on exactly how long this is going to take.” MacGuire’s execution took 24 minutes, with the man gasping for air between 10 and 13 minutes. Reporter Alan Johnson stated, “He gasped deeply. It was kind of a rattling, guttural sound. There was kind of a snorting through his nose. A couple of times, he definitely appeared to be choking,”

MacGuire was convicted of the 1994 rape and murder of 22-year-old Joy Stewart, who was seven months pregnant. Her body was discovered by hikers in a creek; her throat was cut and she had been sodomized. There are many people in our country who would say, “Serves him right, MacGuire got what was coming to him. Let him suffer an awful, painful, frightened death just as his victim did. Why should I care about what happens to an evil, unrepentant killer? The world is a better place now that he’s gone, and I’m glad it hurt.” Can you hear the rumble? Are these not the same individuals who care about the tenants of our good country? Do they not tout the glory of our constitution?

The eighth amendment is short, but it is probably most recalled for its last six words: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” What does cruel and unusual punishment mean? Some say this is a subjective concept. Others, like Justice Brennan, have floated some principles one might consider (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)): it could be punishment that is degrading to human dignity or that which inflicts it in wholly arbitrary fashion. Is there a way, though, to administer the death penalty in a fashion that respects human dignity? Former British Cabinet Minister Michael Portillo established a set of principles he believes is effective: death should be quick and painless to prevent suffering, medical education should be provided to the executioner to prevent suffering caused by error, the death shouldn’t be gory (also to protect those carrying out the execution and arguably the witnesses), and you shouldn’t force the inmate to cooperate in his own execution.

Whether to be concerned with agony and suffering in a death row inmate is a subjective decision based in an individual and community sense of justice. Yet it would be hard to deny that there is a change in how this process is being administered. This resolute rumbling I refer to, it must too engage in a set of values checking. If your code is the Constitution, does this still fit under your interpretation of the 8th amendment? If your code is not the 8th amendment, do you justify your reception of this new method in lex talionis (an eye for an eye)? What is stopping you from carrying out justice yourself, and if you want to, do you actually want to participate in a civilized society? Why shouldn’t creating that be the goal; aren’t we slipping back toward a time where men were hanged in the public square? Are you okay with going back?

Virginia too is running out of pentobarbital, and is now adding the new drug Midazolam to its execution process, despite objections of the drug’s manufacturer, Hospira, which has publically objected to the use of their product for capital punishment. Undoubtedly, more capital punishment states will continue to follow Ohio’s lead, leading to more inmates reaching their lengthy, choking ends this way. One inmate, Michael Lee Wilson, had some expressive last words: “I love everybody…I love the world…love my daughters for me…I feel my whole body burning.” Are we going to stand by our convictions or are we going to recognize that something is amiss here? Are we civil or savage?