The state of Ohio executed Dennis McGuire on January 16. Google Dennis McGuire execution, and you’ll see from the headlines that his was not an easy death. Strapped to a gurney, he suffered air hunger for a quarter of an hour as his breathing system slowly shut down. A medical specialist had predicted exactly these effects for the drugs injected into McGuire’s arm. When McGuire’s son objected to the cruelty of his father’s execution, an Ohio official replied, “The state does not guarantee you a painless death.”
You don’t need to be an opponent of the death penalty to see the perversity of this situation. A hundred years ago, murderers went to the gallows. They would hang by the neck until dead, which meant the noose strangled them for a minute or more, whether or not the condemned person’s neck was broken. Then we developed a newer, higher tech means of execution: the electric chair. Electrocution was supposed to be faster than hanging. Instead, people’s hair would smoke, their clothes would smolder, and the process of dying appeared more gruesome than hanging. The old-fashioned guillotine or firing squad seemed better.
Then came lethal injection, a technique for execution that would remove doubts about cruelty and inhumanity during administration of capital punishment. We had a lot of experience with pentobarbitol, a powerful drug that veterinarians use to put animals to sleep. This description explains how pentobarbitol works to euthanize a pet dog:
The euthanasia solution is then injected into your pet’s vein, where it rapidly travels throughout the body. Within just a few seconds, your dog will become unconscious, experiencing no pain or suffering. Breathing will slow down and then stop over the next several seconds. Cardiac arrest will soon follow, resulting in death. Typically, death occurs within 30 seconds of intravenous administration.
We know what dose is required to kill an eighty pound dog, and we know what dose is required to kill a two hundred pound man. Yet the prison officials responsible for executions encounter unhappy complications these days. Even though veterinarians can obtain all the pentobarbitol they need to bring about a comfortable end of life for people’s pets, prison officials cannot obtain the drugs they need to execute people. Apparently the chemicals they’re accustomed to using are made in Europe. The Europeans object to having their product injected into people in order to kill them, and they have forbidden it. Consequently prison officials have to search for alternatives.
Now we see how the people in Ohio came to such a pass. They administered a mixture and a dose of drugs they had not tried before. The result was a death that took much longer, and therefore involved more suffering, than death by hanging. Perversely, in the case of Dennis McGuire at least, lethal injection became the most inhumane form of execution available. What a callous, suggestive dismissal the dead man’s children received from the Ohio official: “The state does not guarantee you a painless death.”
That’s a sobering sentence, when you think about the power the state already visits on people it considers enemies, including torture of prisoners, SWAT team strikes, and assassination of American citizens abroad. Now it claims the ability to execute you in a twenty-minute horror show, which suggests officials can choose whatever method they like to prolong your death. Suicide may be painless, but death at the hands of the state is not.