Death row inmate Kenneth Williams failed to secure a last-minute stay of execution from the US Supreme Court on Thursday night, and so the state of Arkansas was allowed to carry out a fourth execution in its aggressive and controversial effort to put eight inmates to death in 11 days—before the state’s supply of midazolam expired at the end of April. Midazolam is the first drug in a three-drug protocol that is designed to anesthetize, paralyze and then kill death row inmates in a “humane” way.
Williams was pronounced dead at 11:05 pm on Thursday at the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ Cummins Unit outside of Little Rock—the same prison he had escaped from 17 years earlier. The 38-year-old Williams was the fourth and last man to be executed by the state in eight days.
Williams was first sentenced to life in prison in 1999 for killing a University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff student and cheerleader, Dominique Hurd. But he escaped, after serving just three weeks of his sentence, and while on the run shot and killed Cecil Boren, a former deputy prison warden who lived near the prison.
Williams then drove Boren’s stolen car to Missouri where he was involved in a car accident that killed another man, Michael Greenwood. Williams later also confessed to killing Jerrell Jenkins the same night he killed Hurd in a letter to a Pine Bluff newspaper editor.
Kayla Greenwood, Michael Greenwood’s daughter, said she learned just a few days ago that Williams had a 21-year-old daughter, Jasmine, and a 3-year-old granddaughter whom he’d never met. Kayla told the Springfield News-Leader that her mother bought plane tickets for the two of them so they could fly to Arkansas and see Williams on Wednesday, the day before he died.
Kayla herself also wrote Arkansas Gov. Hutchinson asking him not to execute the man who murdered her father precisely because, she said, “his execution will not bring my father back or return to us what has been taken, but it will cause additional suffering.”
Just a few days earlier, Arkansas had carried out the first double execution in America in 17 years, despite arguments from defense lawyers that one of the men, Ledell Lee, had an untested innocence claim and despite troubling accounts of the seemingly botched execution of Jack Jones, the first man executed by the state this month.
After the execution was completed, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson insisted that the four state-sponsored killings proved that “our system of laws in this state has worked.”
Four of the eight condemned inmates originally scheduled to be put to death this month were ultimately spared execution this time, after numerous legal challenges, some of which eventually made their way to the Supreme Court, resulted in an emergency stay on the execution of Jason McGehee and stays of execution for the other three inmates, Don Davis, Bruce Ward and Stacey Johnson, according to KATV, Little Rock.
On Friday, Williams’ attorneys called for a full investigation of his death, citing what they described as “horrifying” eye witness accounts of their client’s death after he was given the lethal cocktail. They requested that all evidence from the death chamber be preserved by the state for further analysis.
AP reporter Kelly Kissel, who has witnessed nine previous executions, reports NBC News, said this about Williams’ execution on Thursday night: “This is the most I’ve seen an inmate move three or four minutes in.”
Kissel reported that Williams lurched and convulsed a total of 20 times before he died, and two other witnesses from local media, Donna Terrell of Fox 16 and Knowles Adkisson of the Pine Bluff Commercial, corroborated his account, adding that Williams could still be heard breathing heavily after the death chamber’s microphone had been turned off.
A spokesman for Gov. Hutchinson dismissed Williams’ repeated movements as an “involuntary muscular reaction” to one of the drugs used.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas has also called for a probe, arguing that the state may have violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Midazolam has come under increased scrutiny after its use in three botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona in the last three years primarily because it does not always render the inmate unconscious, as it is meant to, before the second and third drugs in the protocol take effect.
Until 2009, most states using a three-drug combination led with a barbiturate, usually sodium thiopental, a rapid-onset short-acting general anesthetic.
“While the rest of the country and the world moves away from the death penalty, Arkansas has shown just how committed it is to running in the wrong direction,” said James Clark, a senior campaigner at Amnesty International USA.
However, as more and more of the necessary pharmaceuticals have been pulled from sale to prisons by American and European Union manufacturers—who did not want their drugs used to kill people—prisons have been forced to improvise. Several states have turned to midazolam as a substitute.
But, as death penalty critics have been arguing for years, midazolam is a sedative, not an anesthetic and cannot render an inmate fully unconscious as a general anesthetic can.
According to the Guardian, Arkansas “still has enough of the second drug, vecuronium bromide, to kill up to 13 prisoners by its expiry date next March, and a similar capacity of potassium chloride expiring in August 2018” but will be unable to carry out any further executions without midazolam, which drug companies refuse to provide.
Five additional death penalty states have scheduled 15 executions for this year: Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio and Texas. The first of these executions, says the Guardian, is set to take place on May 10 in Ohio. Ronald Phillips received a death sentence for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter, Sheila Marie Evan, in Akron, Ohio, in 1993.
– Danielle Bizzarro