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Fourth Arkansas execution in eight days prompts questions about inmate’s movements

Arkansas executed two inmates on April 24 in back-to-back lethal injections, which marks the country's first double execution in 17 years. (Video: Reuters)

Arkansas executed a death-row inmate late Thursday in the state’s fourth lethal injection in eight days, concluding a frantic execution schedule officials said was necessary to carry out death sentences before one of their drugs expired.

Witness accounts of the execution, the last one on the schedule in Arkansas, prompted immediate questions after journalists said they saw the inmate lurching and convulsing during the lethal injection.

Attorneys for the death-row inmate — Kenneth Williams, who was convicted of killing a man he fatally shot after escaping from a prison where he was serving a life sentence for another killing — had tried to stop his execution. After it was carried out, they called the witness accounts “horrifying” and called for an investigation.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said the executions this month were carried out under the state’s protocols, and he dismissed calls for a probe into Williams’s execution, saying there were no indications of pain during any of the lethal injections.

“I see no reason for any investigation other than the routine review that is done after every execution,” Hutchinson said at a news briefing Friday.

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Hutchinson said he spoke with Wendy Kelley, director of the Arkansas Department of Correction, to go over what happened during Williams’s execution.

“I was satisfied with the information that I received, and I see nothing that draws questions that would justify anything more than a routine review,” Hutchinson said. The governor also said he saw no need to alter the state’s execution protocols.

Not long after, attorneys for Williams filed a motion in federal court asking for Arkansas officials to preserve physical evidence related to his body, including drawing blood on Friday and preserving brain, liver and muscle tissue. State officials opposed this request, including the description of the execution as “botched,” and said they no longer had Williams’s body or the material the attorneys were seeking.

On Friday evening, U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker sided with Williams’s attorneys, ordering the state to collect the tissue samples and to have an autopsy conducted.

Arkansas was already in the spotlight for an aggressive timetable of executions set by Hutchinson, which drew international attention and criticism and pushed the state into the epicenter of American capital punishment.

The state had planned an unprecedented wave of executions, though court orders ultimately blocked half of the scheduled lethal injections, including a second that had also been scheduled for Thursday night. Still, the state was able to resume executions last week for the first time in more than a decade, and this week they carried out three more.

Williams’s execution came late Thursday after his attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that he was intellectually disabled and not fit to be executed. Arkansas officials pushed back, saying these attorneys were only trying to delay his lawful sentence.

Relatives of another of Williams’s victims — a truck driver killed while Williams fled from police in a car chase following his prison escape — also pleaded for his life, asking the governor to call off the execution.

Arkansas carries out country’s first back-to-back executions in almost two decades

These pleas went unanswered, and Williams, 38, was executed shortly after 11 p.m., according to the Associated Press, which has reporters serve as media witnesses in Arkansas. In a handwritten statement released by Arkansas officials, Williams extended his “apologies to the families I senselessly wronged and deprived of their [loved] ones.”

Media witnesses told reporters at the prison that during the execution, Williams briefly convulsed and moved while on the gurney after a sedative, the first lethal injection drug, was administered.

The AP reporter serving as a media witness wrote an account saying that Williams’s body lurched forward “15 times in quick succession, then another five times at a slower rate,” about three minutes into the lethal injection process. This movement — described as “lurching, jerking, convulsing and coughing” — lasted for about 20 seconds, and the noise could be heard in the viewing room through the execution chamber’s glass window.

According to the AP reporter’s account, Williams continued to breathe heavily for another few minutes until his breathing stopped about four minutes after the lurching. He remained still for the rest of the execution and was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m., six minutes after his breathing apparently stopped.

Donna Terrell, another journalist who witnessed the execution, said the lethal injection was “disturbing” at times. She said Williams did not have any expression on his face during the execution.

“It didn’t appear as though he was in pain,” Terrell, an anchor for Fox 16, an affiliate in Little Rock, said in an interview with her station, noting it was the first execution she had witnessed. “His hands were never clenched. But it was … it wasn’t what I expected to see in terms of a smooth execution.”

Washington Post reporter Mark Berman explains why Arkansas scheduled eight executions in 11 days. (Video: McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post, Photo: ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS / HANDOUT/The Washington Post)

A spokesman for the state’s governor described Williams’s movements as an “involuntary muscular reaction” to one of the drugs used, according to the AP. In a court filing Friday, Arkansas officials submitted an affidavit from state Sen. Trent Garner (R), who said he witnessed the execution. Garner described seeing Williams “have involuntary muscle spasms for approximately 10-15 seconds” after the sedative was administered.

“I never saw any signs of Williams experiencing any pain or suffering,” Garner said. “I did not see him lurch. He did not have any grimacing in his face, nor did his arms shake, nor did he clench his fist.”

Another affidavit filed by Arkansas officials, this one from an assistant state attorney general, said much the same using similar language.

Attorneys for Williams have called for a full investigation into his execution, the second time this week questions have been raised about one of the state’s lethal injections.

“We tried over and over again to get the state to comport with their own protocol to avoid torturing our client to death, and yet reports from the execution witnesses indicate that Mr. Williams suffered during this execution,” Shawn Nolan, a federal public defender representing Williams, said in a statement early Friday.

Nolan said the accounts of Williams convulsing were “very disturbing, but not at all surprising, given the history of the risky sedative midazolam, which has been used in many botched executions.”

Arkansas officials used midazolam, a common sedative, as the one of three drugs in their lethal injections. The sedative has been controversial when used in executions, particularly after it was utilized in a bungled execution in Oklahoma and in lethal injections that were prolonged and saw inmates gasping for breath in Ohio, Arizona and, most recently, in Alabama in December.

In the Oklahoma execution, officials later blamed a botched 2014 execution on a misplaced IV. A lethal injection in Arizona the same year that lasted nearly two hours. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of the drug in Oklahoma’s protocol in 2015, just days before Arkansas obtained its stock of the drug.

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Arkansas authorities had said their schedule was necessary because their stock of midazolam expires at the end of April. Pointing to an ongoing shortage of lethal injection drugs, sparked in part by drug companies’ objections to their products being used to kill people, officials said they had no guarantee of obtaining more drugs and needed to carry out the sentences of eight men convicted of capital murder, some decades ago.

Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberty Union of Arkansas, called for an investigation into whether Arkansas “tortured” Williams during the execution process late Thursday.

“Reports that Kenneth Williams coughed, convulsed, and lurched during his execution raise serious questions about whether the state, in its rush to use up its supply of midazolam before it expired, has violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment,” Sklar said in a statement.

A spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R) declined to comment about the execution Friday.

Williams’s lethal injection was pushed further into the night after his attorneys sought a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices denied the requests shortly after 10 p.m. without explanation or any noted dissents.

The execution ends a tumultuous period in Arkansas, which had long sought to resume executions after last carrying out a death sentence in 2005. Hutchinson had originally set eight executions to occur during an 11-day span, a timetable without equal in the modern history of the death penalty in the United States, sparking concerns about the pace and the possibility of mistakes.

This schedule prompted a flurry of legal challenges, both from the death-row inmates and drug companies. Court orders halted four of the planned executions, including three of the first four scheduled last week, but state officials continued their legal battle in state and federal court for the remaining lethal injections on the calendar.

Before Thursday night, Arkansas carried out three other executions this month. Last week, the state executed its first death-row inmate in 12 years and then, on Monday night, officials put two inmates to death in the country’s first back-to-back lethal injections in nearly two decades. After Williams’s execution, it is unclear when Arkansas will next attempt to carry out sentences for the 29 men remaining on death row.

Williams, the youngest death-row inmate to die under the schedule Hutchinson approved, was executed at the same prison he escaped from in 1999. While serving a life sentence for killing Dominique Herd, an 18-year-old cheerleader, he hid in a garbage truck and escaped, according to court records.

Williams arrived at the home of Cecil Boren, who lived near Grady, Ark., not far from the prison, and found the man working on his car. Williams fatally shot him, dragged his body to a bayou and fled with his car, according to court filings, and was only captured after a car chase that killed Michael Greenwood, a truck driver.

Attorneys for Williams said he suffered an intellectual impairment and that he changed in prison, becoming an ordained minister. Relatives of those people whose lives he cut short took sharply different views on whether his execution was warranted.

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Genie Boren, who was at church when her husband was killed, lives in the same home where he was attacked, just two miles from the Cummins Unit prison where Arkansas executions take place. Boren said she planned to witness Williams’s execution.

“Years ago, I said I probably would not attend that, because that’s not something that I thought I’d want to see, somebody die,” Boren, 73, said in a recent telephone interview. “My girls and I decided that we should do that, that we should attend.”

Boren said she regularly drives by the prison. “I always look over that way, because I know he’s there,” Boren said. “And once he’s gone, I’ll know he’s gone.”

Relatives of Greenwood, though, pleaded for Williams’s life on Thursday. They asked the governor to stay his execution, saying that they do not want him put to death and do not want more suffering.

Kayla Greenwood, who was 5 when her father was killed, wrote a letter to Hutchinson asking for him to call off the execution. She also reached out to Williams’s relatives after seeing media reports about Williams’s daughter wanting to see him and introduce him to her daughter, Williams’s grandchild.

Greenwood said her family decided to pay for plane tickets so Williams’s daughter, Jasmine, could fly from their home near Seattle to Arkansas with her 5-year-old daughter. Greenwood and her relatives — including her mother, Stacey, and the twin boys she was pregnant with when Michael Greenwood was killed — then drove from their homes in Missouri, picked Jasmine and her daughter up from the airport in Little Rock and drove them to the prison about 77 miles away.

Jasmine asked the Greenwood family to wait outside the prison while she visited her father because prison officials would not allow them to visit Williams, Kayla Greenwood said.

“Watching her leave the prison and knowing that was probably their last goodbye broke my heart,” Greenwood wrote in her letter to Hutchinson. “Jasmine has done nothing at all, but like me, she could lose her father.”

A spokesman for Hutchinson did not respond to a request for comment earlier Thursday about whether he had received the letter.

In a statement after Williams’s lethal injections, Hutchinson did not address the execution itself, but spoke about Williams’s history and the executions that have roiled his state.

“The long path of justice ended tonight and Arkansans can reflect on the last two weeks with confidence that our system of laws in this state has worked,” he said. “Carrying out the penalty of the jury in the Kenneth Williams case was necessary. There has never been a question of guilt.”

After outlining the facts of Williams’s case, he also named victims of the other inmates put to death, and said their families “were finally provided the justice they were promised and they also saw that our system of laws have meaning.”

Attorneys for Williams had tried to have his execution delayed, at one point arguing that one of the state’s earlier executions was botched and saying it meant his lethal injection should be postponed. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who is assigned cases from the federal circuit covering Arkansas, referred Williams’s to the full court, which rejected it.

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State and federal courts, along with the U.S. Supreme Court, have been repeatedly asked to weigh in on the executions, with inmates filing a volley of stay requests and drug companies unsuccessfully asking judges to keep their drugs from being used.

A federal judge earlier this month blocked one of two executions scheduled for Thursday night, staying it because a state parole board said it would recommend changing that inmate’s sentence to life without parole. The first two executions on the calendar, planned for April 17, were both stayed by the Arkansas Supreme Court; the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a last-ditch appeal from state officials seeking to carry out one of the death sentences. Two more executions were planned for April 20, and while one was blocked by the state Supreme Court, the second that night was carried out, breaking the state’s execution hiatus.

Arkansas quickly returned to the death chamber earlier this week, executing two inmates on Monday night, a feat unseen since Texas carried out a double execution in 2000. Jack H. Jones Jr. and Marcel W. Williams, both convicted of murder, had appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but those appeals were rejected. Both men described medical issues that their attorneys argued could complicate their lethal injections.

Jones was sentenced to death for raping and killing a bookkeeper named Mary Phillips and severely beating her daughter during the same incident in 1996. Williams was sentenced to death in 1997 for abducting, robbing, raping and killing Stacy Errickson, who was living at Little Rock Air Force base while her husband served overseas.

Jones was executed first. Williams’s execution, intended to occur not long after, was delayed after his attorneys filed court motions saying that the first lethal injection was botched, prompting a federal judge to briefly stay the second one planned that night.

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Williams’s attorneys said corrections officials struggled while inserting an intravenous central line and then did not follow departmental policy in making sure Jones was unconscious five minutes after they began administering midazolam, the sedative used as the first in the state’s three-drug protocol. They also said Jones was “moving his lips and gulping for air.” One media witness said Jones’s lips moved, “but only very briefly at the start of the process,” while another also said his lips moved briefly after the sedative was first administered.

Arkansas state officials pushed back on Williams’s attorneys, arguing that the claims were “inaccurate,” rejecting the description of Jones as gulping for air and moving his lips and saying that “no constitutional violation” occurred during the lethal injection. U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker, who had issued the temporary stay, later lifted her order after a hearing, and Williams was pronounced dead a little more than three hours after Jones. According to internal logs released by Arkansas officials, Jones’s execution took 14 minutes and Williams’s took 17 minutes.

This story, first published at 7 a.m. on Thursday, was updated throughout the day and on Friday with the latest news on the execution.

Further reading:

These executions come as the United States is putting fewer inmates to death

The executions Justice Sotomayor calls ‘horrifying deaths’

Arkansas courts had briefly blocked the state from using lethal injection drug

Texas sued the FDA over lethal injection drugs confiscated in 2015