Plain Dealer editorial: Ohio's death-penalty secrecy shrouds too much crucial information for executions to resume

Editorial from The Plain Dealer The Ohio Bill of Rights forbids the state from inflicting cruel and unusual punishments. But the shameful secrecy imposed by a 2014 Ohio law makes it impossible for citizens to judge whether the method the state plans to use starting next month to resume executing prisoners violates that prohibition or other aspects of Ohio law.

We have long opposed capital punishment. It is erratically imposed -- more often than not, carried out against those without means. Death-penalty appeals cost taxpayers plenty and pain victims' families. And there's always the possibility an innocent person will be executed.

Yet whether an Ohioan favors or opposes the death penalty, there are serious questions about whether Ohio's administration of lethal injection is constitutional.

The state's first lethal injection law, signed 15 years ago by Republican Gov. Bob Taft, says Ohio must use "a drug or combination of drugs of sufficient dosage to quickly and painlessly cause death."

Convicted murderer Dennis McGuire isn't alive to testify whether his January 2014 execution, Ohio's most recent, was painless. But his execution wasn't quick, after the state was forced to use an experimental combination of two drugs on McGuire because makers of a preferred drug in its execution cocktail had forbidden its use for executions.

A witness of McGuire's execution, Alan Johnson of The Columbus Dispatch, reported that, about five minutes after the drugs started flowing, McGuire visibly "struggled, made guttural noises, gasped for air and choked for about 10 minutes" then "issued two final gasps and became still." It was 24 minutes into the process before he was pronounced dead.

True, as Johnson also reported, McGuire's death "wasn't the terrifying, brutal death he inflicted on his 22-year-old victim in 1989." The murder of Joy Stewart, of Preble County's West Alexandria, also denied life to her unborn son.

Ohio's next execution, the first since McGuire's, is set for Jan. 12, when Ronald Phillips is scheduled to die for the 1993 Summit County rape and murder of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter.

For Phillips' execution, an Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spokeswoman confirmed, the agency intends to use a three-drug mixture -- a combination of midazolam, rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride. The spokeswoman added that the department has "all three drugs in its possession" and that they're "FDA approved" but she would not comment as to the source, citing the 2014 shield law.

The blanket secrecy surrounding Ohio executions makes it impossible for Ohioans to know whether the state is overpaying for drugs and who is benefiting, or whether Ohio's constitutional ban on cruelty is being traduced in their names.

Executions in Ohio should not resume until this repugnant silence on a matter of grave public importance is lifted.