Arkansas governor dismisses calls for full execution probe
LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas’ governor said Friday that he sees no reason for anything beyond a routine review of the state’s execution procedures after a condemned inmate lurched and convulsed 20 times during a lethal injection that involved a controversial sedative.
Attorneys for Kenneth Williams called for a full investigation after Williams became the fourth convicted killer executed in Arkansas in eight days as the state sought to carry out as many lethal injections as possible before its supply of midazolam expires.
“I think it’s totally unjustified,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters when asked about the possibility of an independent probe. “You don’t call for an independent investigation unless there’s some reason for it. Last night, one of the goals was there not be any indications of pain by the inmate, and that’s what I believe is the case.”
A federal judge on Friday granted a request from Williams’ attorneys to preserve evidence from the dead inmate’s body, ordering the state to collect blood and tissue samples as well as request an autopsy from the state medical examiner.
Hutchinson said Williams’ execution will be reviewed by the Department of Correction, which is typical any time an inmate is put to death. He said a written report would not be issued.
The governor said he does not think Arkansas needs to change its execution protocol, citing court rulings that have upheld the use of midazolam, which has also been used in flawed executions in other states. But he has not ordered prison officials to find a replacement for Arkansas’ supply of the drug, which expires Sunday.
An Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution said that about three minutes in, Williams’ body jerked 15 times in quick succession, lurching violently against the leather restraint across his chest. Then the rate slowed for a final five movements.
Hutchinson said Arkansas Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley described Williams’ movement as “coughing without noise,” though media witnesses described hearing sounds from the inmate.
Williams’ attorneys released a statement calling the witness accounts “horrifying.” The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas also called for an investigation, arguing that the state may have violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. In a statement Friday, the organization’s executive director, Rita Sklar, said the governor had “ignored the dangers … all to beat the expiration date on a failed drug.”
Arkansas had planned eight executions over an 11-day period, the most ambitious schedule since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. But courts issued stays for four of the inmates. The four lethal injections that were carried out included Monday’s first double execution in the U.S. since 2000.
Williams read a prepared final statement and also spoke in tongues, the unintelligible speech used in some religions. But his prayer faded off as the midazolam took effect.
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.”
After the jerking, Williams breathed through his mouth and moaned or groaned once — during a consciousness check — until falling still seven minutes after the lethal injection.
In a log of Williams’ final hours that the state filed in federal court Friday, prison officials said it took 17 minutes to connect the inmate’s IV lines. The log said Williams’ hands remained relaxed and he did not grimace or show distress on his face during the movement. The state’s court filing also included affidavits from two witnesses who said they did not see any signs of pain or suffering.
“I saw an efficient, effective execution process,” state Sen. Trent Garner said.
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.
A doctor who has been described by inmates’ attorneys as an expert on the potential dangers of midazolam said Williams’ movements raised concerns.
“It was either a seizure that was predictable based upon Mr. Williams’ co-existing medical conditions or partial paralysis in an execution where the protocol itself was not followed,” said Dr. Joel Zivot, an associate professor of anesthesiology and surgery at Emory University. “Or, more to the point, even if the protocol was followed, the protocol was fundamentally flawed.”
Williams’ lawyers had said he had sickle-cell trait, lupus and brain damage, and argued that the combined maladies could subject him to an exceptionally painful execution in violation of the Constitution.
The state argued in a court filing Friday that there’s no proof that Williams suffered.
“The drugs worked as intended and planned,” the court filing said.
Some concerns had been raised about Monday’s execution of Jack Jones, whose mouth moved after attorneys said he should have been unconscious, though a federal judge determined it did not appear to be “torturous and inhumane.”
All of the Arkansas inmates — including Williams — died within 20 minutes, a contrast from troubled midazolam-related executions in other states that took from 43 minutes to two hours. Witnesses to those lengthier executions also described hearing inmates breathe heavily, snore or snort or seeing them struggle against their restraints.