LUCASVILLE, Ohio (WTVN) -- One of the witnesses to the execution of Dennis McGuire Thursday morning described it as "disturbing."
McGuire appeared to gasp several times and took more than 15 minutes to die as he was executed with a combination of drugs never before tried in the U.S.
Columbus Dispatch reporter Alan Johnson was one of the media witnesses selected to watch the execution. He says McGuire made several loud snorting or snoring sounds.
"Mr. McGuire started deeply gasping for air. His stomach would kind of contract and then expand greatly and his chest. He made sort of a gasping, rattling, snorting sort of a sound several times," Johnson said.
It was one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999.
Ohio officials used intravenous doses of two drugs, the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone, to put McGuire to death for the 1989 rape and fatal stabbing of a pregnant woman, Joy Stewart.
McGuire’s adult children sobbed a few feet away in a witness room as they looked on at the state death house in Lucasville in southern Ohio.
McGuire thanked Stewart’s family for a letter he apparently received from them referring to “kind words” he said meant a lot. “I’m going to heaven, I’ll see you there when you come,” he said.
In attempting to halt his execution, McGuire’s attorneys argued he was at substantial risk of a medical phenomenon known as air hunger, causing him to experience “agony and terror” as he strained to catch his breath.
The state had adopted the new execution method after supplies of the state’s previous drug dried up.
McGuire opened and shut his left hand as if waving to his daughter, son and daughter-in-law. More than a minute later he raised himself up, looked in the direction of his family and said, “I love you. I love you.”
“Oh my God,” his daughter, Amber McGuire, said as she observed her father’s final moments.
A coughing sound was Dennis McGuire’s last apparent movement, at 10:43 a.m. He was pronounced dead 10 minutes later.
Previous executions with the former execution drugs took much less time, and typically did not include the types of snorts and gasps that McGuire uttered.
"I've never seen one where a person struggled in their death throws as much as Dennis McGuire did," said Johnson who has witnessed 18 executions.
State attorneys had disputed claims that McGuire would experience terror as he was put to death with the new method. A federal judge sided with the state but acknowledged the new method was an experiment. At the request of McGuire’s lawyers, Judge Gregory Frost ordered the state to photograph and then preserve the drugs’ packaging boxes and vials and the syringes used in the execution.
McGuire, 53, was sentenced to death for killing Stewart in Preble County in western Ohio. The newlywed was eight months pregnant at the time.
Stewart’s slaying went unsolved for 10 months until McGuire, jailed on an unrelated assault and hoping to improve his legal situation, told investigators he had information about the woman’s Feb. 12, 1989, death. His attempts to blame the crime on his brother-in-law quickly unraveled and soon he was accused of being the Joy Stewart’s killer, according to prosecutors.
More than a decade later, DNA evidence confirmed McGuire’s guilt, and he acknowledged that he was responsible in a letter to Gov. John Kasich last month.
“One can scarcely conceive of a sequence of crimes more shocking to the conscience or to moral sensibilities than the senseless kidnapping and rape of a young, pregnant woman followed by her murder,” Preble County prosecutors said in a filing with the state parole board last month.
His attorneys argued McGuire was mentally, physically and sexually abused as a child and has impaired brain function that makes him prone to act impulsively.
“Dennis was at risk from the moment he was born,” the lawyers said in a parole board filing. “The lack of proper nutrition, chaotic home environment, abuse, lack of positive supervision and lack of positive role models all affected Dennis’ brain development.”
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show McGuire unsuccessfully sought a reprieve in recent weeks to try to become an organ donor. In November, Kasich granted a death row inmate an eight-month reprieve to let the prison system study his request to donate a kidney to his sister and his heart to his mother.
Kasich said McGuire couldn’t identify a family member who would receive his organs, as required under prison policy.
Johnson says that after the execution, one of McGuire's attorneys called it a "failed, agonizing, experiment by the state of Ohio."
(The Associated Press contributed to this story)