Arkansas carries out first US double execution for 16 years, amid legal drama over ‘botched’ injection
The first double execution to take place in the US in 16 years was carried out by Arkansas on Monday night amid a fierce dispute over whether the prisoners were subjected to a botched procedure amounting to cruel and unusual punishment.
In dramatic events that erupted a little over an hour after the first prisoner, Jack Jones, was put to death at 7pm, a federal judge stepped in and temporarily stayed the lethal injection of the second, Marcel Williams, on grounds that Jones’ execution might have been unconstitutional.
In frantic legal wrestling, the state conceded that it had spent some time trying to insert an IV line into Jones’ neck, but had failed in the endeavour.
The deputy solicitor-general, Nicholas Bronni, admitted in a court filing that the execution team had tried “to place a central line in Jones’ neck, but the attempt was unsuccessful”.
Lawyers representing Williams instantly protested to the courts that it had taken 45 minutes for the execution team to find a vein into which they could inject the lethal cocktail into Jones. The attorneys warned that their client was obese, weighing 180kg, and that would render finding his veins even more difficult than his fellow death row inmate.
However, the judge lifted the stay of execution after about an hour and Williams was dead by 10.33pm.
Three media witnesses were allowed in to see both executions at the state’s at Cummins Unit prison. But the value of their testimony was limited in one crucial regard: they were only permitted to enter the death chamber after the IV lines had been placed into the each prisoner’s veins, which means that there is no independent verification of whether or not the early stages of the death protocol were botched.
The double execution in Arkansa marks something of a departure for the death penalty in both the state and the US. Until this month, Arkansas had not executed anyone for 12 years and nationally capital punishment has been markedly declining, with only 20 executions last year, the lowest number since 1991.
The Republican governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, decided to buck this downward trend by announcing that he would schedule eight killings in 11 days, in order to use up a batch of the sedative medazolam that was expiring at the end of this month. Had all the executions taken place, it would have been the largest mass execution in the US for more than 50 years.
In the end, though, the state found itself up against formidable legal challenges brought by lawyers for the inmates and four of the eight were spared immediate death as a result of stays imposed by the courts.
One prisoner, Ledell Lee, was killed last Thursday night in an execution that lasted 12 minutes. The fourth and final execution is now scheduled for Thursday.
Jones, 52, was sentenced to death for the 1995 rape and killing of Mary Phillips. He strangled the bookkeeper with the cord to a coffee pot while her 11-year-old daughter, Lacey, who survived, was in the room.
Shortly before the lethal injections were administered, Jones read out a lengthy statement in which he said: “I’m so sorry Lacey. Try to understand I love you like my child.”
After the execution was completed, the victim’s daughter, now Lacey Seal, released her own comments. “I’m so glad it’s done. I’m glad that part of my life, that chapter, is closed,” she said.
It might take some time for the precise events involved in Jones’ executions to be clarified. Both state officials and the condemned man’s lawyers agree that there was difficulty finding a vein, but just how long it took and what were the consequences remain a matter of dispute.
An eyewitness account by Associated Press recorded that the lethal injections began at 7.06pm local time but he continued to show signs of breathing, with his chest rising, until 7.11pm. Consciousness tests were done at 7.13pm including lifting his eyelids and rubbing his sternum but there was no sign of movement and at 7.20pm he was declared dead by a coroner.
Williams’ execution was started with the injection of midazolam, according to media witnesses, at 10.16pm
and he was pronounced dead at 10.33pm.
After Williams’ execution, governor Hutchinson said in a statement: “This is a serious and reflective time in our state and it is important for the family of [his victim] Stacy Errickson and all Arkansans to know that in this case our laws ended in justice.”
Williams, 46, was sent to death row for the 1994 rape and killing of 22-year-old Stacy Errickson, whom he kidnapped from a gas station in central Arkansas. Authorities said he abducted and raped two other women before he was arrested over Errickson’s death. Williams admitted responsibility to the state parole board last month.
“I wish I could take it back, but I can’t,” he said.