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Opening Arguments

He gasped and choked

He had an owie, and then he died:

LUCASVILLE, Ohio — It wasn’t the terrifying, brutal death he inflicted on his 22-year-old victim in 1989, but Dennis McGuire did not go quietly yesterday.

McGuire struggled, made guttural noises, gasped for air and choked for about 10 minutes before succumbing to a new, two-drug execution method at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville.

There was no clear indication that the drug combination — never before used in a U.S. execution — triggered McGuire’s death struggles. But Allen Bohnert, one of McGuire’s federal public defenders, called the execution a “failed, agonizing experiment by the state of Ohio.”

I don't mean to make light of McGuire's suffering or be completely callous about it. Wishing pain on somebody isn't exactly the moral high ground, and it's not in keeping with the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Whether someone being executed goes softly or in agony for a few minutes is not irrelevant, but it pales in comparison to the fact that he is being dispatched into eternity. It's fine to search for ever more humane ways to carry out capital punishment, but the main debate ought to be over whether we do it at all. As I've said here frequently, I've been all over the map on the issue, and I think it should be a difficult call for anyone.

It occurs to me that we're searching not just for more humane ways to execute but also ways further removed from our visceral experience. Hanging a man truly means watching him suffer. Putting him in front of a firing squad makes it a little easier for the executioners to distance themselves, especially since they know some of them have blanks so no one really knows who fired the fatal bullet. Sticking the condemned in a separate room to be gassed  or electrocuted is pushing the deed further away. Sticking a needel in his arm and watching him "just go to sleep" almost sounds comforting, doesn't it?

We think it's important to keep capital punishment, but please don't make us think about it. If we wan't it to truly be a deterrent, maybe we should go back to the days of public executions. The people who carry it out don't want to get too close to it, but I bet it would get huge audiences. And Geraldo or Maury can officiate and announce.

Oh, and cheers to Columbus Dispatch reporter Alan Johnson, who finally got one of these stories exactly right. Most accounts of executions focus almost exclusively on the person being executed, what he ate for a last meal, whether he suffered, and on and on, with barely a mention of how his victim might have suffered. Johnson dives right into that with his very first sentence: "It wasn't the terrifying, brutal death he inflicted on his 22-year-old victim in 1989, but ..."