Ohio’s New Lethal Injection Raises Concerns

Louis Krauss, News Editor

The Ohio State Correctional Facility’s experimentation with a never-before-used combination of lethal chemicals in January has led the Deparment of Correction to reanalyze its use of chemical poisons.

Charles McGuire, who was convicted for the rape and murder of a pregnant woman in 1994, received the death sentence and was executed on January 16 by an experimental mixture of midazolam and hydromorphone. Observers said McGuire appeared to be convulsing and gasping just moments after the injections, and that the apparent distress continued for 24 minutes until he died. Under fire by civil liberties groups, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is saying little. “The only thing I can tell you is that the Department of Correction is conducting an after-action review, and until that review is completed it would be premature for me to comment any further,” department spokeswoman Joellen Smith said last week. The agency’s review, Department officials have said, will review whether McGuire likely suffered unusual levels of pain.

According to a press release, the nearby guards claimed he was simply “putting on a big show,” the Department will address whether or not the mixture of midazolam and hydromorphone should continue to be used.

This is not the first instance of such experimentation. Due to a shortage of pentobarbital, the traditional chemical used in lethal injections, the practice of mixing lethal chemicals has slowly increased. According to ACLU Communications and Public Policy Director Mike Brickner, this shortage is the result of a decline in production.

“The big reason causing Ohio and other states to experiment with these types of drugs is because companies in Europe that manufacture these drugs have said that they will not sell them to the Departments of Corrections for the death penalty. This has led to a big shortage of the medications typically used for lethal injections,” Brickner told the Review yesterday.

Brickner went on to say that he believes in human right of life and that the government and prison officials should not be allowed to choose who is sentenced to death.

In regard to the McGuire case, Brickner said not only that the execution was “botched,” but that Ohio prisons should not continue to use these more painful injections.

“We have a lot of issues with the execution of Mr. McGuire. There were a lot of things I think happened counter to what we expect in an execution, which is that it was not quick,” Brickner said. “That’s something that Ohio laws require, and that was the longest execution in Ohio since we brought back lethal injection in the ’90s. I also think the reaction of Mr. McGuire during the execution — the way he breathed and how his body reacted during the execution — indicates that this was a botched execution.”

While Brickner views the execution as a failure, Ohio officials thought the procedure went as planned. Other prisons, however, took note of what happened. Louisiana officials canceled inmate Christopher Sepulvado’s death sentence after learning of McGuire’s suffering.

According to Brickner, one of the main issues with the lethal injection process is that the correctional facilities don’t publicize how they select who is to receive the penalty.

“We really don’t know [why McGuire was selected]; this is part of the problem with the death penalty. The government is not very forthcoming with a lot of their information. There’s a huge stigma with doctors assisting with executions, and if they do consult a medical person it’s not publicized. So there’s no transparency,” Brickner said.

An additional issue with the process is that medical personnel are not trained in manufacturing lethal medications; reports indicate that many doctors who are commissioned to design lethal drugs have done so reluctantly, causing them to use larger doses of medicine in the hope of expediting the process.

In addition to the ACLU, Equal Justice USA has also fought to eliminate the death penalty. EJUSA Communications worker Emma Weisfield-Adams said that the focus shouldn’t be on castigating prisons that experiment with their lethal chemicals, but rather on making criminal justice policies more fair and effective.

Both Weisfield-Adams and Brickner added that race often factors into deciding who undergoes the penalty as prisoners of color are more likely to be sentenced, a likeliness that is accentuated if their crime was directed at a white person.

Although she believes that there are still many issues to be dealt with, Weisfield-Adams trusts that the country will continue to see a rise in the number of states eliminating the penalty.

“I think we’re going to see the rate at which states repeal the death penalty [increase] at a very steady pace, as seen with states like New Hampshire and Delaware, which are very close,” Weisfield-Adams said.

As of 2014, 18 states have eliminated the death penalty. Brickner and Weisfield-Adams both note that Delaware and New Hampshire are on the verge of elimination, while states such as Ohio and Texas are far from eradication.