Arkansas on Monday continued their controversial execution spree by carrying out back-to-back executions to become the first US state to kill more than one inmate on the same day in 17 years.
The state’s plans to execute eight inmates in 11 days were set in motion last Thursday with the execution of 51-year-old Ledell Lee, before he was able to seek new DNA testing his lawyers believed may have proved his innocence.
The state has been subject to a flurry of legal challenges over the executions and has been accused of fast-tracking them due to its supply of lethal injection drugs expiring on April 30. The cocktail of drugs used have also been widely debated and the latest executions have led to fresh claims they cause undue suffering.
Convicted killer Marcel Williams, 46, was pronounced dead around 10pm local time, just over three hours after fellow killer, 52-year-old Jack Jones, was put to death on the same gurney.
Williams’ fatal punishment was initially delayed by a judge over claims that Jones’ execution wasn’t carried out properly.
Lawyers for Williams claimed officials had spent 45 minutes trying to place an IV line in Jones’s neck before placing it elsewhere.
They argued, according to local media reports, that Jones was still conscious, moving his lips and “gulping for air” after being administered with the sedative midazolam that is supposed to render inmates unconscious.
Jones, who was convicted of raping and killing Mary Phillips, 34, in 1995 and trying to murder her 11-year-old daughter, and found guilty of another rape and murder in Florida, reportedly took 14 minutes to die after the procedure began.
Williams, who was briefly removed from the death chamber, before being returned after his stay was lifted, took 17 minutes to die after the procedure began. He was pronounced dead at 10.33pm.
Williams was convicted of the 1997 kidnapping, rape and murder of 22-year-old Stacy Errickson. He also abducted and raped two other women.
Speaking on behalf of Errickson’s family, Governor Asa Hutchinson said in a statement: “After more than 20 years, justice has prevailed.”
Earlier Jones had argued his health conditions could lead to a painful death. He gave a lengthy last statement, with his final words: “I’m sorry.”
In the two-minute long statement Jones said: “I hope over time you can learn who I really am and I am not a monster.
“I want people to know that when I came to prison I made up my mind that I would be a better person when I left than when I came in.
“I had no doubt in my mind that I would make every effort to do this. I’d like to think that I’ve accomplished this.”
Jones said he made “every effort” to be a good person, practising Buddhism and studying physics.
“There are no words that would fully express my remorse for the pain that I caused,” he wrote.
Before last week, Arkansas hadn’t had an execution since 2005 or a double execution since 1999.
Arkansas has now executed three inmates of the eight cases it plans to conclude in less than a fortnight.
Courts have halted four of those executions, but Arkasnsas officials are understood to be hopeful they can complete one more execution before the end of this month.
Why Arkansas execution plans are so controversial
1) 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.”
Do victims’ families really want the death penalty?
2) The widower of one of Ledell Lee’s alleged victims told the BBC that if he had been told from the outset that his wife’s killer would serve a life sentence without parole, he may have been able to move on.
However, he said that he prospect of the man’s execution, which arose and disappeared continuously, “means reliving the hurt of the murder itself, and that every stay of execution now feels like an insult to his wife”.
The drug companies also fought the executions
3) 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
4) 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.