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Protracted execution intensifies debate on lethal injection drugs

Family members of Dennis McGuire contend his execution amounted to torture, with the convicted killer’s son, who is also named Dennis (right), saying, ‘‘Nobody deserves to go through that.’’

Kantele Franko/Associated Press

Family members of Dennis McGuire contend his execution amounted to torture, with the convicted killer’s son, who is also named Dennis (right), saying, ‘‘Nobody deserves to go through that.’’

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The long and restless execution of an Ohio inmate with an untested combination of chemicals elicited cries of cruel and unusual punishment Friday and could further narrow the options for other states casting about for new lethal injection drugs.

A gasping, snorting Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die after the chemicals began flowing Thursday — the longest execution of the 53 carried out in Ohio since capital punishment resumed 15 years ago, according to an Associated Press analysis.

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McGuire’s adult children complained it amounted to torture, with the convicted killer’s son, also named Dennis, saying: ‘‘Nobody deserves to go through that.’’

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction via AP/file

Dennis McGuire.

Whether McGuire felt any pain was unclear. But Ohio’s experience could influence the decisions made in the 31 other lethal-injection states, many of which have been forced in the past few years to rethink the drugs they use.

States are in a bind for two main reasons: European companies have cut off supplies of certain execution drugs because of death-penalty opposition overseas. And states can’t simply switch to other chemicals without triggering legal challenges from defense attorneys.

‘‘There’s only so many times you can say we’re going to try a new method, or try something different, where at this point it’s just going to invite a lot of skepticism,’’ said Fordham University law professor and lethal injection expert Deborah Denno.

In light of what happened in Ohio, ‘‘states will now have more of a burden to show that they are using a well-thought-out best practice,’’ said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

Ohio’s prison system is reviewing the execution and declined to comment on the amount of time it took McGuire to die from the two-drug combination, which had never been used before in a US execution. McGuire, 53, was given both a sedative and a painkiller.

Most Ohio death row inmates over the past 15 years took 15 minutes or less to die, records show.

McGuire, who was sentenced to die for raping and stabbing to death a pregnant newlywed in 1989, appeared unconscious but gasped repeatedly as he lay on a gurney.

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