The state of Arkansas killed Kenneth Williams last night, the death penalty determined by a jury for his 1999 murder of a Grady farmer, Cecil Boren, after Williams had escaped from prison while serving a life sentence in an earlier murder. Controversy followed the execution, the fourth in eight days, though only half the eight that Gov. Asa Hutchinson had hoped to kill between April 17 and 27 before a supply of one execution drug expired.
Media witnesses reported multiple body movements by Williams, an audible moan, heavy breathing and other outward unusual signs during the administration of three drugs — midazolam as a sedative, vecuronium bromide as a paralytic and potassium chloride to stop his heart.
The observations prompted immediate calls for an investigation from the ACLU and others who fought the death penalty. Supporters of the death penalty saw it otherwise. J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson, again called the execution flawless and termed the movements witnesses had seen “involuntary muscle reaction.” Republican state Sen. Trent Garner, a lawyer by training and employee of Sen. Tom Cotton, witnessed the execution. He, too, proclaimed it flawless and said Williams had not suffered, judging by a lack of appearance of pain on his face. The paralytic drug is intended to mask muscle movements, however.
I witnessed the #ARexecutions ; the inmate did not suffer or seem in pain. His face was calm. It was not cruel, unusual, botched or torture.
— Senator Trent Garner (@Garner4Senate) April 28, 2017
Some developments overnight, in addition to reactions already noted on our execution thread during the evening:
* The ACLU called for a review of the execution.
“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. Mr. Williams’ execution must be reviewed to investigate the witnesses’ accounts and determine whether the state tortured Mr. Williams before killing him.
“Midazolam’s well-documented risks and role in numerous botched executions should have given Governor Asa Hutchinson pause. Instead, he ignored the dangers and undermined our state’s moral standing – all to beat the expiration date on a failed drug.”
As reported by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, “three minutes after his lethal injection began, Arkansas inmate Kenneth Williams began coughing, convulsing and lurching with sound that was audible even with a microphone turned off, media witnesses to his execution said. [AP] State news editor Kelly Kissel said that Williams’ body lurched forward at 10:55 p.m., three minutes after the midazolam was administered.”
* Those same concerns were echoed by one of Williams’ attorneys, Shawn Nolan, a federal community defender from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania:
“The accounts of the execution of Mr. Williams tonight are horrifying. 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. Press reports state that within three minutes into the execution, our client began coughing, convulsing, jerking and lurching with sound that was audible even with the microphone turned off. This is very disturbing, but not at all surprising, given the history of the risky sedative midazolam, which has been used in many botched executions. What’s important right now is that all the information about tonight’s execution must be meticulously documented and preserved so that we can discover exactly what happened in that execution chamber. The courts were wrong for not intervening. Governor Hutchinson’s spokesman, who commented that our client experienced “involuntary muscular reactions,” is simply trying to whitewash the reality of what happened. We are requesting a full investigation into tonight’s problematic execution.”
* Gov. Asa Hutchinson will talk to the press at 11 a.m. today about the executions and a coming special legislative session. His spokesman, J.R. Davis, has already said he thinks a review of the execution is unlikely.
* Daughters of Cecil Boren — Jodie Efird and Holly King — witnessed the execution. They told reporters afterward, shown in Fox 16 video at this link, that they were thankful to the state for bringing the case to an end. Efird said there was no change of facial expression that indicated suffering by Williams, but added that any amount of movement he might have had “was far less than his victims.” Asked if the execution brought closure, Efird said: “It’s not closure … we just don’t have to endure this any more.” Added King: “Real justice has been served, finally.”
* Fox 16 also has video of media witness Donna Terrell, who described the “chest pumping” and “sounds” that continued. The sounds were audible through the glass partition between witnesses and the execution chamber even though the microphone was turned off. She describes how little witnesses know about the administration of the various drugs because much of the process is shrouded and not described as drugs are administered.
* Jacob Rosenberg, who was at the prison for the Arkansas Times but not a witness to this execution, compiled notes from various witness accounts and compared them with established protocol for injection of the drugs, consciousness checks and other steps in the procedure. From his notes, drawn from various accounts including the timeline of the Associated Press’ Kelly Kissel, who’s witnessed many executions:
— While Williams is still speaking in tongues, the lethal injection proceeds.
— 10:52 lethal injection begins
— He is speaking in tongues and it begins to fade as drug hits. He finally says, as he is going under, ““The words that I speak will forever…”
— in first few minutes there is “coughing, convulsing, jerking” and struggling for air a few minutes into the procedure. loud enough that they could hear it in the other room without the sound on. (“gasping” “labored breathing” “pronounced heavy breathes”)
— 10:55 he lurched forward in quick succession, 15 times approximately, respiration then slowed
— 10:57, consciousness check is performed but according to media witnesses he is still breathing heavily
— Pine Bluff Commercial Knowles Adkisson told me that there was a “moan” in his notes from 10:58.
— at 10:59 all heavy breathing ends
— Williams was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m.
Rosenberg said Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves told reporters that there was a consciousness check at 10:57 and the paralytic was administered after that. There was “movement” after this point. This is not considered a positive sign, but we have only conjecture about what Williams might have been feeling.
Rosenberg spoke with Dale Baich, an Arizona attorney who viewed a problematic execution there, about a potential failure of the consciousness check, which continuing movement afterward might indicate:
“At a minimum, this was a deviation from the protocol. More profound, Mr. Williams was [potentially] conscious and was suffocated before the third drug was administered, which means he would have felt like he was burning.
“What is important is that all the evidence be preserved and that an independent investigation is conducted to get to the bottom of what went wrong with this execution, and the other three that took place this week.”
Sister Helen Prejean, the Louisiana nun who’s a leading figure in death penalty opposition, was a busy presence on Twitter during the night, making her own remarks about the “barbarity” of events in Arkansas and quoting many others. Several noted that all the victims in the eight originally scheduled executions were white and three of the four who were killed — Williams, Ledell Lee and Marcel Williams — were black. Of the 200 executed in Arkansas since 1913, KTHV reported, 143 were black.
Prejean reiterated, too, the ongoing issue of how Arkansas obtained the drugs used in these executions. Drug companies apparently intend to forge ahead with a lawsuit over the state’s dishonesty in how it obtained the vecuronium bromide from supplier McKesson. Questions exist, too, about sources of other drugs, their quality and storage.
An agency of the state has behaved deceptively, at a minimum, to carry out the executions. Outward physical signs were unusual in both this execution and that of Marcel Williams earlier. That deserves a full medical review, not just a perfunctory sign-off from the state medical examiner. Perhaps an independent medical review is in order. The legislature and governor — supportive of the death penalty though they are — in the interest of transparency and confidence in the state should demand no less than a full review. If the killing was indeed “flawless,” they should have nothing to fear.
Arkansas’s Death Row now numbers 29. No further executions are scheduled, though they could be soon in the cases of some of the four inmates granted stays this month. One, Jason McGehee, awaits a determination on clemency recommended for him by the state Parole Board.
The state doesn’t now have sufficient supplies of drugs to carry out further executions. Will Department Director Wendy Kelley arrange another parking lot meeting with an anonymous drug “donor”? It seems unlikely that the state will be able to use trickery again to obtain drugs from McKesson, the drug supplier that sued to stop use of a drug it sold in the execution. The special legislative session perhaps should consider alternative forms of death.