Dennis McGuire’s execution on 16 January 2014 lasted 25 minutes and was one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999. After the state was unable to obtain its traditional execution drug, pentobarbital, it turned to a new, untested cocktail of drugs, comprising the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone. In practice, this cocktail resulted in a horrendously botched execution.
Experts had already raised concerns that this new combination of drugs could lead to terrible suffering, with Harvard anesthesiologist Dr David Waisel warning that the prisoner might experience “the terror of air hunger” for several minutes.
However, the execution was allowed to go ahead after a judge ruled that Ohio was entitled to use a protocol he accepted was experimental, noting that “Ohio is free to innovate and to evolve its procedures for administering capital punishment.” In its filing the state had argued that Dennis was not “entitled to a pain-free execution”.
In the event, Dennis’s execution was viewed with horror by observers, who witnessed him gasping for air throughout the extended 25 minute process. Despite this, prison officials rushed to stress that the new execution drug protocol had “worked very well”.
Following Dennis’s execution, his family launched a suit against the pharmaceutical company Hospira, which had manufactured the drugs used in their loved one’s torturous execution. Unfortunately, though Hospira had ultimately put distribution controls in place on the drugs used in the Ohio execution, they had not done so in time to prevent Ohio prison from purchasing stockpiles of the drug for use in future executions. The litigation continues.