Family members of an Ohio inmate executed by the state have sued a lethal injection expert witness for failing to recognize that the controversial two-drug technique would cause suffering. Claiming that the expert helped create an inmate execution policy that he knew would be painful, the plaintiffs are seeking financial compensation for its use in a death sentence carried out in January of this year.
Ohio Conducts Review after Lengthy Execution
In January, Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire was executed for the 1989 rape and stabbing death of Joy Stewart, a 22-year old pregnant woman. McGuire’s execution, the first to be conducted by an untried two-drug combination, made headlines after he took nearly ½ an hour to die. According to witnesses, the convicted killer gasped for air and writhed in pain for 15 minutes, leading attorneys representing McGuire and his family to call the new method of execution a “failed experiment” and request official review of the process.
In a report relying on the opinion of an anesthesiologist who reviewed the witness accounts and McGuire’s medical records, Ohio officials declared that the condemned inmate did not suffer during his execution. Finding that the execution was humane despite the apparent hang-ups, the report read, “The two drugs used in the McGuire execution had their intended effect and that McGuire did not experience any pain or distress. The bodily movements that were observed were consistent with the effects of the drugs, his obesity and other body characteristics, and involuntary muscle contractions associated with the ending of respiratory function. There is no evidence that McGuire experienced any pain, distress or anxiety.”
Despite the findings, the Ohio Department of Corrections announced that it would increase the dosages of both drugs in its two-drug system, and state officials have postponed a second planned execution indefinitely. Calling the state’s actions a tacit admission that the execution did not transpire as planned, attorneys for McGuire’s family filed a lawsuit against the state and the expert witness who helped develop the new two-drug execution procedure.
Inmate’s Family Files Lawsuit against Death Penalty Expert Witness
In a recently filed lawsuit, family members of Dennis McGuire claimed that a former expert witness who helped Ohio construct its two-drug cocktail knew, or should have known, the procedure would cause unreasonable pain and suffering when used during executions. Dr. Mark Dershwitz, who resigned as a death penalty expert witness citing concerns about his professional reputation, worked closely with Ohio officials to help create the state’s new lethal injection process. Dr. Dershwitz is an anesthesiologist and pharmacologist working for the University of Massachusetts who has been a public proponent of the two-drug method as a new lethal injection policy, and he contracted as an expert witness with Ohio prior to McGuire’s death in developing the procedure for use in state executions.
The lawsuit against Dr. Dershwitz and the drugs’ distributors claims that the expert “knew or should have known that when used in executions, Hydromorphone and Midazolam would cause unnecessary and extreme pain and suffering during the execution process.” Pointing to the McGuire ordeal, plaintiffs claim that he suffered needlessly because of the experimental procedure, and Dr. Dershwitz shares responsibility for encouraging the state to switch to the two-drug method. Although Dershwitz did not testify at a trial, his work was instrumental in the adoption and use of a two-drug cocktail that, according to lawsuit, he knew would cause pain and suffering in violation of the Constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
Dr. Dershwitz, who resigned in April after continuing to consult with Ohio prison officials following McGuire’s execution, has not responded to the federal lawsuit.