It was 10:06 a.m. as we walked across the muddy courtyard in the crisp morning air. I had to get the time from an Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations employee since they had taken my cell phone and all of my other belongings. They gave me a pad of yellow ruled paper, ink pen and two sharpened pencils.
I was about to watch a man die.
I was one of four media witnesses to the execution of Dennis McGuire at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville on Thursday. It is a heavy responsibility: representing the public that agreed through democratic means that some crimes are so heinous they necessitate taking the culprit’s life.
My role was simply to observe and tell the public what I saw. It is the public’s right and responsibility to know. On advice from the veteran reporters there with me — Andrew Welsh-Huggins of the Associated Press and Alan Johnson of the Columbus Dispatch — I logged events using a clock on the back wall of the death chamber.
By 10:07 we entered the death house and went down a short hallway into the conjoined witness rooms. Each was cramped, wide enough only for the three maroon chairs where observers representing both the victim’s family and the inmate’s family would sit. The rest of us stood behind them.
The front of each room was a pane of glass, with an empty bed on the other side with arm rests that fold out to form a T. Between the two rooms was a thin wall with a door that stayed open.
McGuire’s victim was Joy Stewart, who was eight months pregnant — her son was to be named Carl — when she was raped, stabbed in the throat and left in a patch of trees along the road outside of Eaton in Preble County in 1989.
Her family entered first at 10:09 a.m.: her sister Carol Avery, Avery’s husband Dewite and the couple’s adult son Benjamin. They said nothing. Dewite pulled out a Bible and began to read from it. Behind them stood publicly appointed victim advocates.
A minute later, McGuire’s family walked in: his daughter Amber McGuire, his son Dennis R. McGuire and Dennis R.’s wife Missie McGuire. They were joined by a priest, who pulled up a small black chair and sat behind them.
Out of sight and earshot, procedures dictate the prison warden was then reading McGuire his death warrant. They walked into the beige-walled death chamber at 10:12. McGuire’s face was pale under his grey hair and beard. Prison officials told us he hadn’t slept or taken a shower since the day before.
McGuire laid down on the table.
At 10:13 a.m. they drew a curtain shut across the windows. A closed circuit television in each room provided a view from above as medical staff rolled up the sleeves on his white T-shirt, showing arms tattooed with the names of his children, and ran IV lines into both arms.
The curtain opened at 10:26 a.m. I was surprised at how sparse the room was. There was no heart monitor. Only McGuire on the table with tubes in his arms from the wall. The warden stood beside him and another prison official above him, looking down at him.
McGuire mouthed “I love you” to his family, then looked at Stewart’s family and quickly looked away. The warden asked McGuire if he had any last words, and offered him a microphone.
McGuire said yes, then struggled to get the words out through sobs. He thanked Stewart’s family for a letter they sent him— his children would later say the letter said they hope McGuire is forgiven for his sins and goes to heaven – then said “I’m sorry.”
Then he looked at his children who sat across from the foot of his bed. “To my children I love you,” he said, sobbing. “I’m going to heaven. I’ll see you there when you come.”
Prison officials say the drugs – a combination never before used in an execution—were delivered at 10:28 a.m.
His daughter cried uncontrollably.
McGuire waved with his wrist, his body strapped down to the table. Then he suddenly yelled out “I love you. I love you,” before his head lay back, his eyes rolled back in his head and he appeared to fall asleep at 10:29 a.m.
Minutes went by without McGuire moving, his family cried as the priest patted them on the back and attempted to console them.
“Oh my god,” his daughter said.
“Don’t watch,” Missie McGuire said.
At 10:35 a.m. I first noticed McGuire convulse, then gasp. He snorted for air – a sound like a violent snore, a guttural inhale – and then sat still. Then gasped again. Sometimes his mouth just opened soundlessly. At 10:39 a.m. he snorted so loud his daughter covered her ears.
His family cried. “How could this go on for so long?” one of them asked. There was some discussion with the priest that accompanied them saying they thought it would only take five minutes.
I noticed one last shallow breath at 10:43 a.m. The next minute went by with no motion.
At 10:48 a.m. the warden stepped back, and a physician entered the room. For three minutes, he used a stethoscope to examine McGuire for breathing and a heartbeat.
“We were here. That’s all that he wanted,” one of his family members said.
At 10:52 a.m., the curtain closed, and opened again at 10:54 a.m. The warden declared the time of death at 10:53 a.m.
Stewart’s family said nothing throughout the procedure, only watched stoically.
Prison officials escorted me with the other media witnesses out of the room first, carrying in my notepad and memory some of the only records that this death took place.