You know the turn for the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction is about to come up on your left when you see the Lincoln Memorial Lawn graveyard on your right. On Monday, for the third time in April, I carpooled down with another journalist and turned left down the road that leads to Cummins. Looking out both sides, we could see the stretching Delta farmlands on which prisoners work for no pay.
A little way down the road, two ADC employees lean on a large white truck parked at the end of a gravel driveway that stretches back to an old colonial house, the front half caved in on itself. They give us our media passes. Behind them and the house, we see the Varner Unit, where Arkansas death row inmates live.
Varner to Cummins, that’s the route they take to die.
With our badges, we enter the Cummins parking lot, where TV reporters fan out and set up their lights for live interviews and reports. Other journalists go inside, giving up their cell phones. At first, a guard will not let me bring a recorder. We have a back and forth; I make him call someone. He lets it go eventually.
Each time I enter this facility, going through the giant metal gates into the visitation center turned media room — with its vending machines among gray walls and small slit windows — I think of how I am part of the ADC’s bureaucratic task of killing someone. The law requires media witnesses to be present.
The jockeying for position, as a reporter, adds to my unease. Reporting on executions is a crucial public service, but no one can pretend there is not an ugly underbelly. People are checking their retweets on last meals.
The viewing of the death of Marcel Williams comes down to a lottery between me and one other person. That’s the strange position: hoping to win a drawing to see someone die. My name is chosen.
It’s surreal and mind-bending and uncomfortable. That feeling of my name being chosen is one of the oddest of my life. As a journalist, I want to be in the room. As a person, I just feel a tension in my stomach.
We leave the media room to board a van that will carry us a short distance to the execution chamber. As we ride, an unbelievably red sunset crashes over the Delta landscape.
Around 8:05 p.m., we pass through a door with a large sign on its front, “EC” (execution chamber), and take a seat in the few rows of chairs that face four large rectangular windows. Some lights are on, but it is mostly dim. A black curtain is drawn behind the windows in front of us. We wait. Other witnesses play with their fingers or clasp their hands or touch their glasses. At 8:17 p.m., a staff member announces there is a stay of 20 minutes. As I would later find out, the stay was until 8:30 p.m. or further word from U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker, which came at 9:22 p.m.
“Twenty minutes is up,” an ADC staff member whispers in the back of the room. Nothing changes. At 9 p.m. someone says, “still no news.”
More than an hour passes from the time we first enter the viewing room. From the room behind the curtain, we can hear a low buzz of people chatting. Sometimes, a laugh rings out from inside the room. I simply look forward at the black curtain, knowing almost nothing about what is happening to Williams. The curtain creates a reflection of the room behind me, like a mirror. I can only see other witnesses, and myself, fidget.
Sometime after 9 p.m., I hear ADC Director Wendy Kelley say, “I’m not letting you out.” Williams — we later learn — was strapped down in a gurney the whole time.
ADC staff lets Williams use the restroom around 9:20 p.m., at which time we are brought back out to the van and left to wonder what is next. Within 10 minutes, we are back in the death chamber. We know, then, that the execution will happen.
In Arkansas, witnesses do not get to see the placement of the IV for lethal injection. So, from that time we entered, at 9:34 p.m., until the curtain opens, I see nothing. We just stare forward at those windows, waiting for them to reveal Williams.
The curtain swings open at 10:16 p.m. and the procedure begins. Yellow light from fluorescent bulbs cast a strange glow in the room in front of us. Williams’ eyes look up at the ceiling. He is on a gurney, tied down. His head is locked in place and the right side of his body is facing us, the viewers. He gives no final words. A long white smock rests over his body. We can see the IV sites.
Witnesses don’t have an audio feed into the execution chamber and there are no announcements along the way. I try to follow along based on what I know of the procedure. The first drug is the sedative midazolam.
Williams’ eyelids begin to droop and eventually close (the right one slightly lingers open throughout). His breaths appear to be deep. His back arches off the gurney as he sucks in air. I lose count of the number of times his body moves that way, rising off the gurney.
The procedure says that 5 minutes after the introduction of midazolam there should be no movement. But, at 10:21 p.m., Williams still appears to be breathing heavily and is still moving. A man on the execution team checks Williams’ pulse and touches his eyes and says something inaudible.
Then Williams’ breathing appears to become shallow. By 10:24 p.m., Williams looks completely still. At 10:27 p.m., an official runs his finger across Williams’ eyelids again. At 10:31 p.m., the official touches the IVs. He pulls out a stethoscope and puts it to Williams’ heart. He calls in a coroner. The time of death is marked at 10:33 p.m.
Then the curtains close, and I can see the reflection again of all these people in this room, brought here just so Williams could be killed by the state. We were all required.
We head back to the media room to tell others. The timeline is long. We were in there a while. It gets confusing. We try our best. Then, we take questions. Asked by a TV news reporter, if, in “layman’s terms,” Williams looked peaceful in his passing, I stress the use of a paralytic, the second drug in the execution protocol, which masks outward signs of suffering. Or I try to say that. I am at a podium and I have just watched a man die. I don’t know what I really said. What I wanted to say was that the use of a paralytic in lethal injection, like so much of the process, was designed to make the process look peaceful. We do not know what Williams felt when he died, and we should not guess based on a process that purposefully hides things for witnesses. It does not matter if it looked peaceful to a layman. Even if you witness an execution, there is still so much you don’t know.