An attorney for an Ohio death row inmate who underwent a slow, gasping execution with a new drug combination has been accused of coaching the condemned man to fake symptoms of suffocation.
Dennis McGuire, 53, took 26 minutes to die - the longest execution of the 53 carried out in Ohio since capital punishment resumed 15 years ago - which renewed questions about the death penalty.
The Office of the Public Defender said Robert Lowe, one of McGuire's attorneys, was temporarily suspended last week but back at work Monday after a review failed to substantiate the allegation.
State prison records released Monday say McGuire told guards that Lowe counseled him to make a show of his death that would, perhaps, lead to abolition of the death penalty.
But three accounts from prison officials indicate McGuire refused to put on a display.
"He wants me to put on this big show in front of my kids, all right when I'm dying." McGuire is reported as having told one guard. "I ain't gonna do this. It's about me and my kids, not him and his cause."
Amy Borror, a spokeswoman for the public defender's office, said all accounts from execution eyewitnesses - which did not include Lowe - indicate McGuire was unconscious at the time he struggled to breathe.
"We have no way of knowing, obviously, because we can't interview Mr. McGuire," she said.
Borror said Lowe was not speaking with the media. He did not immediately return an email message or a phone message left at a number listed under his name.
The office's director, Tim Young, told the Dispatch on Monday that no one in his office encouraged McGuire to fake any symptoms.
Borror said Lowe walked McGuire through the steps involved in an execution and McGuire's statements may have arisen from an interpretation of those conversations.
Borror said Lowe asked McGuire to give a thumbs-up during the execution as a way of determining when he lost consciousness.
Due to ongoing federal litigation, she said the public defender's office closely monitors the sequence of events during the execution process.
Prisons officials alerted Governor John Kasich's lawyer the night before the execution that McGuire had been overheard telling family members he'd been "encouraged to feign suffocation when the lethal injection drugs were first administered," according to a statement released by the public defender's office.
The investigation was first reported by The Columbus Dispatch.
McGuire was put to death January 16 for raping and killing a pregnant newlywed in 1989.
He was executed with a combination of drugs - the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone - that had never before been used in the US and his fitful final moments sparked criticism and calls for a death-penalty moratorium.
Family members wept and later said the process amounted to torture; they have sued alleging undue cruelty.
One report from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction suggests McGuire believed the signaling system he'd set up with his attorney - including the use of a thumbs-up gesture - could be used to save his life.
The night before his execution, a corrections team leader reported being told by McGuire that he understood Lowe as saying "if he started to choke or jerk in any way" the governor would put a stop to the execution.
A deadly experiment
Ohio has begun using lethal doses of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydropmorphone after the European manufacturer of the previous drug, pentobarbital, stopped allowing its use in lethal injections.
Marketed in English-speaking countries and Mexico under the trade names Dormicum, Hypnovel, and Versed, midazolam is a short-acting sedative in the benzodiazepine class of drugs developed by Hoffmann-La Roche in the 1970s.
The drug is used for treatment of acute seizures, moderate to severe insomnia, and for inducing sedation and amnesia before medical procedures.
It possesses profoundly potent anxiolytic, amnestic, hypnotic, anticonvulsant, skeletal muscle relaxant, and sedative properties.
Hydromorphone is a very potent centrally acting analgesic drug of the opioid class. It is a derivative of morphine.
An expert in Dennis McGuire's case claimed the two drugs together in lethal doses would very likely cause what's known as 'air hunger' or simply an acute shortness of breath.
The clinical definition of air hunger or dyspnea is an uncomfortable awareness of one's breathing effort.
It is a normal symptom of heavy exertion but becomes pathological if it occurs in unexpected situations. Reports from McGuire's death chamber suggest this may have in fact occurred.
As such, the appropriateness of the drugs, and the extent to which they may be cruel, will likely be reviewed by Ohio officials before they are used in another execution.
- Daily Mail