BONNE TERRE, Mo. – A Missouri inmate was put to death Wednesday for raping and killing a college student in 1995, making him the first U.S. prisoner put to death since an Arizona lethal injection went awry last month.
The Missouri Department of Corrections said Michael Worthington was executed by lethal injection at the state prison and was pronounced dead at 12:11 a.m. He is the seventh Missouri inmate executed this year.
Worthington had been sentenced to death for the attack on 24-year-old Melinda "Mindy" Griffin during a burglary of her Lake St. Louis condominium.
Before the execution began, while strapped to a gurney and covered with a sheet, Worthington spoke with his witnesses -- some of them his relatives -- through the glass, raising his shaved head.
When the drugs began flowing, his head lowered back to the pillow and he appeared to breathe heavily for about 15 seconds before closing his eyes. Some of his witnesses began crying after he fell unconscious.
The U.S. Supreme Court and Missouri's governor had declined on Tuesday to block the execution.
Worthington, 43, had predicted that the nation's high court and Gov. Jay Nixon would not spare him, insisting in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that he had accepted his fate.
"I figure I'll wake up in a better place tomorrow," Worthington, formerly of Peoria in central Illinois, had said Tuesday. "I'm just accepting of whatever's going to happen because I have no choice. The courts don't seem to care about what's right or wrong anymore."
Worthington's attorneys had pressed the Supreme Court to put off his execution, citing the Arizona execution and two others that were botched in Ohio and Oklahoma, as well as the secrecy involving the drugs used during the process in Missouri.
Those three executions in recent months have renewed the debate over lethal injection. In Arizona, the inmate gasped more than 600 times and took nearly two hours to die. In April, an Oklahoma inmate died of an apparent heart attack 43 minutes after his execution began. And in January, an Ohio inmate snorted and gasped for 26 minutes before dying. Most lethal injections take effect in a fraction of that time, often within 10 or 15 minutes.
Arizona, Oklahoma and Ohio all use midazolam, a drug more commonly given to help patients relax before surgery. In executions, it is part of a two- or three-drug lethal injection.
Texas and Missouri instead administer a single large dose of pentobarbital -- often used to treat convulsions and seizures and to euthanize animals. Missouri changed to pentobarbital late last year and since has carried out executions during which inmates showed no obvious signs of distress.
Missouri and Texas have turned to compounding pharmacies to make versions of pentobarbital. But like most states, they refuse to name their drug suppliers, creating a shroud of secrecy that has prompted lawsuits.
In denying Worthington's clemency request, Nixon called Worthington's rape and killing of Griffin "horrific," noting that "there is no question about the brutality of this crime -- or doubt of Michael Worthington's guilt."
Worthington was sentenced to death in 1998 after pleading guilty to Griffin's death, confessing that in September 1995 he cut open a window screen to break in to the college finance major's condominium in Lake St. Louis, just west of St. Louis. Worthington admitted he choked Griffin into submission and raped her before strangling her when she regained consciousness. He stole her car keys and jewelry, along with credit cards he used to buy drugs.
DNA tests later linked Worthington to the slaying.
Worthington, much as he did after his arrest, insisted to the AP on Tuesday from his holding cell near the death chamber that he couldn't remember details of the killing and that he was prone to blackouts due to alcohol and cocaine abuse. He said a life prison sentence would have been more appropriate for him.
"In 20 years, no one's seen or heard from me," he said. "If I'm the one who did it, what do they think life without parole is -- a piece of cake?
On Tuesday, Griffin's 76-year-old parents anticipated witnessing Worthington die.
"It's been 19 years, and I feel like there's going to be a finality," Griffin's mother, Carol Angelbeck, told the AP, after flying to Missouri from their Florida home. With the execution, "I won't have to ever deal with the name Michael Worthington again. I'm hoping for my family's sake, my sake, that we can go there (to the prison) and get this over with."
"In this case, there is no question in anyone's mind he did it, so why does it take 18 or 19 years to go through with this?" added Jack Angelbeck, Griffin's father. "This drags on and on. At this point, it's ridiculous, and hopefully it's going to end."
Worthington, when asked what he would say to Griffin's parents, directed his comments to her mother.
"If my life would bring her peace and bring Mindy back, I'd be fine with that. But it won't," he said. "It doesn't bring peace or closure. She's still going to have her broken heart."