Ohio execution fails the humane animal slaughter test

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, the botched execution of Dennis McGuire on January 16th in Ohio leaves me feeling very uneasy.

The most powerful State in today’s world – in the name of the citizens of that State – took almost 25 minutes to execute a condemned man. Ohio plans 5 more executions this year and the State Assistant Attorney General Thomas Madden has argued that while the U.S. Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment, “you’re not entitled to a pain-free execution.” U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost apparently agrees with that. Thomas Madden and Gregory Frost would seem to hold that humans – unlike animals – are not entitled to be executed humanely.

The US has a Law for the humane slaughter of animals – The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act. This law requires as follows:

7 U.S.C.A. § 1902. Humane methods ….. Either of the following two methods of slaughtering and handling are hereby found to be humane:

(a) in the case of cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock, all animals are rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut; or

(b) by slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith or any other religious faith that prescribes a method of slaughter whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument and handling in connection with such slaughtering.

Contrast this with the AP report of the execution:

A condemned man appeared to gasp several times and took an unusually long time to die — more than 20 minutes — in an execution carried out Thursday with a combination of drugs never before tried in the U.S. …….  McGuire’s lawyers had attempted last week to block his execution, arguing that the untried method could lead to a medical phenomenon known as “air hunger” and could cause him to suffer “agony and terror” while struggling to catch his breath. McGuire, 53, made loud snorting noises during one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999. Nearly 25 minutes passed between the time the lethal drugs began flowing and McGuire was pronounced dead at 10:53 a.m. Executions under the old method were typically much shorter and did not cause the kind of sounds McGuire made. ………. Prison officials gave intravenous doses of two drugs, the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone, to put McGuire to death for the 1989 rape and fatal stabbing of a pregnant newlywed, Joy Stewart. The method was adopted after supplies of a previously used drug, the powerful sedative pentobarbital, dried up because the manufacturer declared it off limits for capital punishment. ……… What was particularly unusual Thursday was the five minutes or so that McGuire lay motionless on the gurney after the drugs began flowing, followed by a sudden snort and then more than 10 minutes of irregular breathing and gasping. Normally, movement comes at the beginning and is followed by inactivity.

The key point for “humaneness” would appear to be that the victim be first rendered insensible or unconscious very quickly and by methods that are “rapid and effective”. That seems to have been missing here. Presumably the sanctity of “the process” of execution prevented any of the assembled crowd from doing anything to correct the situation. Everybody just waited the full 25 minutes and watched!

I take barbarism to be inelegance of behaviour. Beheading would have been less barbaric. If a firing squad or a guillotine were not appropriate, couldn’t someone have just hit him on the head or otherwise “rendered him insensible” first?

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