Arkansas has carried out its fourth execution within a week, bringing to a troubling end the state’s controversial attempt to run a “conveyor belt of death” in an aggressive burst of killings unseen in the US for more than half a century.
Kenneth Williams was pronounced dead at 11.05pm local time at the end of a 13-minute lethal injection that resulted in disturbing signs of distress on the part of the prisoner.
Eyewitnesses in the death chamber reported that his whole body shook with 15 or 20 convulsions just minutes into the procedure, and that he continued to breathe heavily even after a paralytic was injected into him to render all movement impossible.
After the killing was completed, the Republican governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, the architect of the state’s controversial schedule of quick-fire executions, proclaimed that “the long path of justice ended tonight. Arkansans can reflect on the last two weeks with confidence that our system of laws in this state has worked”.
But observers were left with anything but confidence in the state’s ability to conduct humane executions as doubts continued to dog the week’s proceedings. Those doubts are certain to deepen after Thursday night’s killing, if the eyewitness accounts are any indication.
The lethal injection began at 10.52pm with the injection of midazolam, a sedative that has a very controversial track record in executions. At the time, Williams was still making a statement, and was speaking in tongues. His voice tailed off as he said: “The words that I speak will forever, forever ...”
At about 10.55pm he was reported by media witnesses to be breathing heavily and “gasping”. Then he went into at least 10 seconds of convulsions, in which his body was described as “shaking”, he lurched forwards quickly multiple times, and he moaned and groaned.
Two minutes later, a consciousness check was carried out by rubbing his sternum and lifting his eyelids. Members of the execution team were sufficiently certain that he was unconscious to at that point administer the second drug, vecuronium bromide, that paralyses the muscles and stops all movement.
But according to the witnesses, he was still breathing heavily and he issued a further moan and a groan at 10.59pm – two minutes after the paralytic would have been given.
The governor’s spokesman said after the execution was completed that Williams’ convulsions amounted to “involuntary muscular reaction” brought about by the midazolam. Asked whether he was worried that the heavy breathing had continued after the consciousness check was done, he replied: “No I am not.”
Fears have swirled around the state’s insistence on using midazolam as its first of the three drugs. As a sedative, midazolam does not have the same properties as anaesthetics used to render people unconscious before hospital surgeries. It has been associated with several gruesomely botched executions in the past few years including that of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in which he writhed and groaned on the gurney for 43 minutes.
During Monday night’s execution of Marcel Williams in Arkansas, witnesses saw him breathing heavily and arching his back for several minutes. Lawyers representing the death row inmates had warned repeatedly that were the prisoner not fully unconscious they could be subjected to excruciating pain as a result of the third drug potassium chloride that stops the heart, yet no-one would know because the second drug vecuronium bromide is a paralytic that makes the individual incapable of any movement.
Kenneth Williams made a lengthy statement before he was killed. He apologised to all his victims’ families, and said: “I was more than wrong. The crimes I perpetrated against you all were senseless, extremely hurtful, and inexcusable. I humbly beg your forgiveness and pray you find the peace, healing, and closure you all deserve.”
He added: “I am not the same person I was. I have been transformed. Some things can’t be undone. I seek forgiveness.” Then he began speaking in tongues.
Earlier in the day, lawyers for the inmate had appealed to the US supreme court to stop the execution from going ahead on grounds that Williams is intellectually disabled and as such protected from being put to death. Under Atkins v Virginia, the supreme court prohibited capital punishment for inmates with intellectual disabilities.
In the petition to the nation’s highest court, Williams’ lawyers argued that he has been examined by several mental health experts who have all found him to be intellectually disabled. Yet the prisoner has repeatedly been denied a hearing on the issue – in effect, his claim to be protected by the US constitution from an unlawful state killing has never been addressed by the judicial system.
Despite the plea, the nation’s highest court through Justice Samuel Alito denied the motion for a stay, thus allowing the execution to proceed. The nine justices, who included President Trump’s nominee Neil Gorsuch approving his fourth execution, did not give a reason for their decision.
Williams, 38, was one of eight prisoners who were given death warrants scheduled in rare double executions over an 11-day period this month. Hutchinson attempted to justify the mass execution, unparalleled in death penalty history by anything since 1951, by arguing that a batch of the sedative midazolam used as the first of three drugs in its lethal injection protocol would expire at the end of April.
In intense legal jousting that reached up to the US supreme court on numerous occasions, four of the eight condemned prisoners were eventually spared execution in this round of killings. Three men have been put to death: Ledell Lee last week, and Marcel Williams and Jack Jones on Monday night in the first double execution in the US in 16 years.
Williams was sentenced to death for the October 1999 murder of Cecil Boren. He had escaped from Cummins prison, the same institution in which he was set to be executed on Thursday night.
At the time of the escape and Boren murder, he had already been serving a life sentence for the murder of Dominique Hurd in the previous year. After murdering Boren, he stole his victim’s truck and crashed it into another vehicle, also killing its driver, Michael Greenwood.
On Thursday, Kayla Greenwood, the daughter of the deceased driver, wrote a letter to Hutchinson pleading with him not to go ahead with the Williams execution. “When he took my father from us, Mr Williams caused us all a great deal of pain,” she said.
“That does not mean that asking you to spare Mr Williams is not the right thing to do. It is.”
She went on to reveal that her family had paid for travel costs to allow the condemned prisoner’s own daughter, Jasmine, to visit him in prison before he died. “Jasmine had done nothing at all but like me, she could lose her father,” Kayla Greenwood wrote. “If Mr Williams is executed, her loss, her pain will be as real as mine. I do not wish this on anyone.”
Williams addressed Kayla Greenwood personally to thank her for such kindness in his statement moments before he was killed. He said: “To Kayla Greenwood and the whole Greenwood family, the acts of grace, forgiveness, and mercy you demonstrated to the person who had taken so much from you by bringing to me in prison my own baby and grandchild right before my scheduled execution. No rapists, murderer, terrorist, butcher, barbarian, not even old Beelzebub himself could withstand such a blast of glorious light and continue to walk in darkness.”
The families of Williams’ other victims, Boren and Hurd, however, did not oppose his execution.
In addition to the crushed schedule of so many executions in such short order, the individual killings carried out by Arkansas in the past week have been controversial. As the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School pointed out on Thursday, the three men already killed by Arkansas had potent claims for mitigation – claims that the US supreme court itself has made clear must be considered when deciding who is eligible for the ultimate punishment.
In an amicus brief filed on behalf of Williams, the project wrote: “Arkansas has executed three men, all of whom experienced unspeakable abuse and had significant impairments never presented to a jury. Ledell Lee appeared to have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, borderline intellectual ability, and a plausible but under-investigated innocence claim, but his conflicted counsel, drunk attorney, and mentally ill lawyer all failed to investigate this evidence.”
The brief went on: “Jack Jones had bipolar disorder and a father who beat him and raped his sister. Marcel Williams had a mother who pimped him out to older women for sex starting when Marcel was a pre-teen. The jurors who sentenced these men to death never heard this evidence.”
Jacob Rosenberg is a reporter for the Arkansas Times.