In September 2009, Romell Broom walked into the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility expecting to die by lethal injection. Two hours and 18 puncture wounds later, he walked back to his prison cell alive.
Broom is the only person to ever survive an execution in the U.S. But he’s just one of a number of condemned inmates to experience complications during a lethal injection in Ohio — a number that now includes Dennis McGuire, whose execution Thursday was prolonged and reportedly distressing.
In May 2006, the execution of Joseph Clark in the same Ohio facility took 90 minutes after prison medical staff couldn’t administer an IV. (Clark was a long-time intravenous drug user.) The following year, prison officials took two hours to get a needle into the arms of Christopher Newton, sticking him at least 10 times. The process took so long they gave him a bathroom break.
But Broom’s execution in 2009 went so badly they had to call the whole thing off. When Broom’s executioners failed to locate a vein to place the IV, Broom tried to help them. It still didn’t work. Two and a half hours later, prison officials called the governor, who halted the execution. Broom is still on death row, and his lawyers argue that a second execution attempt would be unconstitutional.
“Ohio is very sensitive about the fact that that is the only lethal injection execution in history that could not be completed,” says Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor who studies lethal injections.
On Thursday, McGuire’s execution became the longest in the state since those controversial lethal injections, reportedly taking at least 25 minutes for the untested, two-drug combination to end McGuire’s life. Witnesses to the execution said McGuire gasped several times and made snorting and snoring sounds, raising the possibility that a host of complications may have occurred.
Dr. Jonathan Groner, a pediatric surgeon at The Ohio State University, says it’s possible that prison officials weren’t able to get the IVs in properly, possibly mitigating the effectiveness of the first drug—midazolam—meant to sedate McGuire.
“If the IVs aren’t actually in, the drugs are going into the soft tissues under the skin,” Groner says. “And that takes a long time to be effective.”
The second drug—hydromorphone—is a synthetic narcotic, and overdoses can often trigger vomiting, gagging and seizures.
“People who have died from narcotic overdoses, they die badly,” says Groner, who raised the possibility that McGuire’s final meal on Wednesday evening could have entered his lungs if he reacted badly to the hydromorphone.
McGuire’s lawyers released a statement on Thursday citing reports that there were problems obtaining IV access and that McGuire gasped for breath for approximately 15 minutes.
“At this point, it is entirely premature to consider this execution protocol to be anything other than a failed, agonizing experiment,” said Allen Bohnert, an assistant federal public defender for the Southern District of Ohio. Bohnert is calling on the governor to impose a moratorium on future executions.