Executioner says he was puzzled by inmate's 26-minute death

Posted at 12:37 PM, Jan 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-05 12:37:04-05

DAYTON, Ohio (AP) -- The lengthy death of a condemned killer who snorted and gasped in Ohio's death chamber was unlike anything the leader of the state's execution team had seen before, the executioner said in federal court.

The man testifying anonymously as Team Member No. 10 said he "was wondering what was going on" during the 2014 execution of Dennis McGuire, the Dayton Daily News reported.

The man also said during his Tuesday testimony that he spoke to a doctor to try to understand why McGuire's body moved the way it did when none of the state's other executions followed this pattern.

A trial that began Tuesday before Magistrate Judge Michael Merz in Dayton focuses on Ohio's updated execution system and a new three-drug method similar to one used several years ago.

Executions have been on hold in Ohio since January 2014, when McGuire gasped and snorted during the 26 minutes it took him to die, the longest execution since the state resumed putting inmates to death in 1999. McGuire was executed for the 1989 rape and stabbing death of 22-year-old Joy Stewart, a recently married pregnant woman in western Ohio.

The state plans to execute Ronald Phillips on Feb. 15 for the rape and death of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in Akron in 1993.

If execution team members determine that Phillips is unconscious after the first drug - a sedative - is administered, the team will go ahead with the second and third drugs even if Phillips moves in the same way McGuire did, the execution team leader testified.

A second execution team member, identified as Team Member No. 21, testified Wednesday that he didn't believe McGuire suffered.

The team member said his check for consciousness with Phillips will include speaking to him, touching the inmate's eye, pinching his earlobe and squeezing a fingernail to check for "purposeful action."

"I don't want him to feel anything," the team member testified.

Lawyers for death row inmates say the three-drug method, announced last year, is worse than a similar procedure used years ago. They say multiple problems remain with the way the state prepares and carries out executions.

In a court filing, the attorneys say the first drug in the process - midazolam - is unlikely to relieve an inmate's pain. The drug, which is meant to sedate inmates, was used in McGuire's execution and in a problematic 2014 Arizona execution. But last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of midazolam in a case out of Oklahoma.

The state used a two-drug method with McGuire, beginning with midazolam, but then discontinued it. Afterward, Ohio struggled to find new supplies of drugs since they were placed off-limits for executions by drugmakers.

The prisons agency now says it will use midazolam; rocuronium bromide, which causes paralysis; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. But the state hasn't said where it got the drugs.

The state says the new method is similar to Ohio's past execution process, which survived court challenges. State attorneys also say the U.S. Supreme Court ruling makes clear that the use of midazolam is allowable.