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New Drug Combination Takes 24 Minutes To Execute Ohio Killer

Dennis McGuire was executed Thursday.
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction
Dennis McGuire was executed Thursday.

The state of Ohio on Thursday conducted its first execution since running out of the lethal injection drug pentobarbital.

Reporter Alan Johnson from The Columbus Dispatch was among those who watched as convicted killer and rapist Dennis McGuire was put to death. Here is some of Johnson's description of what happened:

"After being injected at 10:29 a.m., about four minutes later McGuire started struggling and gasping loudly for air, making snorting and choking sounds which lasted for at least 10 minutes. His chest heaved and his left fist clinched as deep, snorting sounds emanated from his mouth. However, for the last several minutes before he was pronounced dead, he was still."

McGuire had been given, Johnson adds, "an injection of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a morphine derivative. The combination, never before used in a U.S. execution, was chosen by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction because pentobarbital, the single drug previously used, is no longer available."

Ohio and other states can't get more of the drug because its Danish manufacturer declines to sell it for use in executions.

McGuire, 53, was declared dead at 10:53 a.m. ET — 24 minutes after the injection. Scienceline, a New York University website, notes that the Journal of Forensic Science reported in 2002 that "the average length of time from the first injection to death" at that point, "was 8.4 minutes."

McGuire's attorneys had argued ahead of the execution that their client might "suffocate to death in agony and terror." They may pursue legal action, arguing that the execution was cruel and unusual punishment.

As Karen Kasler of Ohio Public Radio has reported for NPR, the state had some problems during previous executions: "A 2006 execution took nearly 90 minutes, with the inmate raising his head at one point to say that the drugs weren't working. And in September 2009, an inmate who's still on death row essentially survived his own execution after prison officials failed to find a usable vein for the lethal injection."

The Dispatch also reminds readers of the crimes that McGuire committed in 1994 and what he did to his victim:

"Joy Stewart, 22, of West Alexandria, a small town about 20 miles west of Dayton, was about 30-weeks pregnant when McGuire raped her, choked her, and slashed her throat so deeply it severed both her carotid artery and jugular vein. At the same point, her unborn child died, too, probably in the woods in the rural area of Preble County where her body was found the next day by two hikers."

Stewart's family issued a statement Thursday that said, in part: "Joy's death was the hardest thing our family has had to endure. ... She suffered terror and pain. He is being treated far more humanely than he treated her."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.