What’s the Best Way to Execute Someone?

German General Anton Dostler is tied to a stake before his execution by a firing squad in the Aversa stockade, Italy, December 1945.

German Gen. Anton Dostler is tied to a stake before his execution by a firing squad in Italy in December 1945. Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration/Colourized by Mads Madsen

Is it time to bring back this method of capital punishment?

Doctors say lethal injection is often botched and horrific.

By Matt McCarthy

Dennis McGuire clearly knew something was wrong. At 10:34 a.m. on Jan. 16, as a crowd at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility looked on, the convicted murderer began gasping for air. Then McGuire began to make snorting and choking sounds. For the next 10 minutes, as a combination of midazolam (a relaxant similar to Valium) and hydromorphone (an analgesic related to morphine) coursed through his veins, McGuire’s chest and stomach heaved as the oxygen in his blood dwindled. Death was approaching, but slowly.

Watching a man gradually suffocate may have come as a surprise to some people in the gallery, but it didn’t surprise David Waisel, an associate professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, who had predicted this would happen. Ten days earlier Waisel had presented U.S. district court judge Gregory Frost with a nine-page declaration explaining that the state of Ohio planned to use an improper dose of midazolam—a short-acting benzodiazepine that’s often used to induce sedation and amnesia before a medical procedure—to kill McGuire. “In light of the insufficient dose of midazolam,” Waisel wrote, “it is substantially likely that McGuire will be aware of this agony and horror.” Based on his expertise, he felt there was a “substantial, palpable, objectively intolerable risk of experiencing the agony and horrifying sensation of unrelenting air hunger” during the execution, suggesting that “McGuire will remain awake and actively conscious for up to five minutes, during which he will increasingly experience air hunger as the drugs suppress his ability to breathe.” It turns out Waisel may have undershot things; Dennis McGuire took nearly 30 minutes to die.

When I spoke with Waisel about his testimony, he explained that he had used a standard, simple set of criteria called STOP-Bang to determine that McGuire’s airway would likely become obstructed shortly after the medications were administered, causing him to slowly suffocate. He would die, certainly, but not in the manner intended. Medications do different things at different doses, and the amount of midazolam that McGuire received caused his throat to partially close, as though his body was slowly strangling itself from the inside, rather than causing him to drift off to sleep…







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