Ohio Officials Worried About Execution Drugs' Effects, Doctors Sounded Warning Cry

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Ben Crair in The New Republic yesterday revealed that doctors had warned Ohio about the "distasteful and disgusting spectacle" that could come from the use of midazolam and hydromorphone as components of a lethal injection. Emails and the controversial execution of Dennis McGuire show that the warnings, as well as Ohio officials' own concerns, went unheeded. (Remember McGuire (photo at right)? He was gasping and choking as he died slowly. It was nothing compared to the completely gruesome murder he himself committed in 1989, but this was, of course, a state-sanctioned execution carried out under the Eighth Amendment.)

TNR's story gets in-depth with the context behind botched executions in Ohio and Arizona dating back to 2009's failed attempt at executing Joseph Rudolph Wood III. The whole thing is very much worth reading as Ohio leaders scramble amid a moratorium on executions to a) find alternative methods for Death Row inmates' fates and/or b) continue investigations into McGuire's executions and eye the investigations taking place in Arizona and Oklahoma. 

Gregory Trout, a lawyer at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, explains in emails obtained by TNR that the state was concerned about litigation springing from an execution that featured the likes of McGuire's gasping and visible suffering. The PR-based stance prompted conversations between Trout and medical experts like Mark Dershwitz, an anesthesiology professor at the University of Massachusetts, and Dr. Mark Heath, a Columbia University anesthesiologist. Doctors conceded that, more than anything, there was a certainty that execution via midazolam and hydromorphone would take much longer than previous and more common methods. Heath, in particular, warned that these executions could prompt “a terrible, arduous, tormenting execution that is also an ugly visual and shameful spectacle.”

Dr. David Waisel, an anesthesiologist from the Boston Children’s Hospital who was brought on to advise McGuire's legal team, warned Ohio officials that the execution was headed for disaster, comparing the effects of the two-drug cocktail to suffocation. 

Amid those warnings, which of course went unheeded in the run-up to the McGuire execution, was Dershwitz serving as an expert witness for Ohio (and, simultaneously other states). He defended Ohio's plan of intravenous midazolam and hydromorphone injections against the claims by Heath and Waisel and others. His input, codified in emails featured by TNR, is worth a read. Dershwitz has since dropped his expert witness relationship with Ohio. 

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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