To state my bias upfront: I oppose the death penalty on philosophical grounds.
Punish those who deserve to be punished. Get them off the streets to protect the public. But kill them? No. That’s too much power to grant a fallible government.
So I would not have wanted to see Dennis McGuire executed last week even if his death had been perfectly administered.
Obviously, his death was not perfectly administered, unless you think a goal of the justice system is to inflict agony on the guilty while experimenting with new drug combinations.
Some time ago, Ohio ran out of pentobarbital, its lethal drug of choice, because manufacturers won’t sell it for executions. So, to kill McGuire, the state switched to two other drugs that hadn’t been used before in U.S. executions.
The result: McGuire gasped, heaved and choked for about 10 minutes before dying, just as his attorneys had warned he would.
The ordeal doesn’t sound like the “humane, dignified execution” that prisons Director Gary Mohr had promised the new drugs would produce.
And, really, what was the basis for that promise? The execution method was new. How would he know?
McGuire’s death struggle has been pooh-poohed by many people.
They point out that whatever terror, if any, McGuire felt in his last moments surely pales next to the terror of his victim: In February 1989, McGuire raped Joy Stewart, then choked her before slashing her throat deeply with a knife. She was 30 weeks pregnant. The baby died, too.
Undoubtedly, she suffered more than he did, and anyone with a heart finds the crime appalling.
I still don’t think that excuses the state for what happened last week.
There isn’t a more extreme exercise of state power than the execution of a prisoner. If Ohio is to get anything right, it had better be that.
McGuire’s is just the latest case suggesting that the state isn’t very good at it.
Romell Broom remains on Death Row after a botched attempt at his execution in 2009. (You remember: the two-hour struggle to establish an intravenous line, with Broom himself trying to help.)
Christopher Newton “suffocated alive” during a drawn-out execution in 2007, according to doctors.
Ohio has been scolded by a federal judge for a “dubious cycle of defending often-indefensible conduct” in executions. (To be fair, the same judge later praised reforms in procedures.)
The death penalty doesn’t deter crime and costs a fortune to administer. Worse, it grants a degree of power that not even the most commendable government deserves.
And I’d say we’re falling well short of commendable in Ohio.
Joe Blundo is a Dispatch columnist.