Arkansas executed its fourth inmate in eight days Thursday night, wrapping up an accelerated schedule with a lethal injection that left the prisoner lurching and convulsing 20 times before he died.
Kenneth Williams, 38, was pronounced dead at 11:05 pm, 13 minutes after the execution began at the Cummins Unit prison at Varner.
An Associated Press reporter who witnessed the lethal injection said Williams’ body jerked 15 times in quick succession, then the rate slowed for a final five movements.
A spokesman for Governor Asa Hutchinson who did not witness the execution, called it “an involuntary muscular reaction” that he said was a widely known effect of the sedative midazolam, the first of three drugs administered.
Williams’ attorneys are calling for an investigation into the execution.
Arkansas had scheduled eight executions over an 11-day period before one of its lethal injection drugs expires on Sunday. That would have been the most in such a compressed period since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, but courts issued stays for four of the inmates.
“I extend my sincerest of apologies to the families I have senselessly wronged and deprived of their loved ones,” Williams said in a final statement he read from the death chamber. “... I was more than wrong. The crimes I perpetrated against you all was senseless, extremely hurtful and inexcusable.”
Williams also spoke in tongues, the unintelligible but language-like speech used in some religions. But his prayer faded off as the sedative midazolam took effect. His final words were, “The words that I speak will forever be, will forever ...” before he fell silent.
The inmate breathed heavily through his nose until just after three minutes into his execution, when his chest leaped forward in a series of what seemed like involuntary movements. His right hand never clenched and his face remained what one media witness called “serene”, AP reported.
After the jerking, Williams breathed through his mouth and moaned or groaned once - during a consciousness check - until falling still seven minutes into the lethal injection.
Williams was sentenced to death for killing a former deputy warden, Cecil Boren, after he escaped from prison in 1999. At the time of his escape in a 500-gallon barrel of hog slop, Williams was less than three weeks into a life term for the death of a college cheerleader.
“Any amount of movement he might have had was far less than any of his victims,” said Jodie Efird, one of Boren’s daughters, who witnessed the execution.
State officials have declared the string of executions a success, using terms like “closure” for the victims’ families. The inmates have died within 20 minutes of their executions beginning, a contrast from midazolam-related executions in other states that took anywhere from 43 minutes to two hours. The inmates’ lawyers have said there are still flaws and that there is no certainty that the inmates aren’t suffering while they die.
“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,” Hutchinson said in a statement issued after the execution.
“Carrying out the penalty of the jury in the Kenneth Williams case was necessary. There has never been a question of guilt.”
Arkansas scheduled the executions for the final two weeks of April because its supply of midazolam, normally a surgical sedative, expires on Sunday. The Arkansas Department of Correction has said it has no new source for the drug - though it has made similar remarks previously yet still found a new stash.
Williams’ lawyers said he had sickle cell trait, lupus and brain damage, and argued the combined maladies could subject him to an exceptionally painful execution in violation of the US Constitution. Arkansas’ “one size fits all” execution protocol could leave him in pain after a paralytic agent renders him unable to move, they’d argued to state and federal courts, which all rejected his claims.
One of Williams’ attorneys, Shawn Nolan, described the accounts of Williams’ execution as “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,” Nolan said.
Why the execution plans are so controversial?
Arkansas’ plans to execute the men prompted a string of legal challenges and constitutional debates because the state wanted to complete them before its supply of the drug, midazolam - used together in lethal injections with two other drugs - expired.
The eight executions would have been the most by a state in such a short time frame since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Robert Dunham, a former director of the Death Penalty Info Centre, put Arkansas’s expiry date consideration into blunt terms.
“What Arkansas has essentially done is taken the concept of the use-by date, and converted it to a kill-by date.”
The drug companies also fought the executions
Midazolam is part of a “cocktail” of three drugs Arkansas uses to execute death row inmates.
It is used to render the prisoner unconscious, while vecuronium bromide is used to halt breathing, and potassium chloride to stop the heart.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray had made an order halting the use of vecuronium bromide in the state’s lethal injection process, but Justices on Thursday overturned it.
The McKesson Corporation had claimed the state obtained the drug from them without declaring what it would use it fo. It said it wanted nothing to do with the executions, CBS news reported.
“We believe we have done all we can do at this time to recover our product,” the company said in a statement.
Justices also denied an attempt by makers of midazolam and potassium chloride to intervene in McKesson’s fight over vecuronium bromide.
The pharmaceutical companies said there is a public health risk if their drugs are diverted for use in executions, CBS reported, and that the state’s possession of the drugs violates rules within their distribution networks.
There’s also concerns about how the drugs work together
Cassandra Stubbs, the director of ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, says the cocktail of drugs used by Arkansas “risks that the prisoner will feel as if he is being burned alive from the inside while paralysed. We know this because it has happened before.”
Stubbs told Al Jazeera of two cases. One involved Ronald Smith who “moved and gasped” for more than 10 minutes after he was injected in December last year and Joseph Wood, who “gasped for air” for two hours in July 2014.