U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker wants to be sure the death of a murderer in Arkansas was not execution by torture as alleged by the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Baker has ordered the Arkansas Department of Corrections to collect blood and tissue samples from Kenneth Williams’ body for the investigation.
Williams was one of eight men Arkansas wanted to execute in the last 11 days of April.
Rita Sklar, the executive director of the ACLU, said the Arkansas Department of Corrections had rushed to kill all eight men before the April 30 expiration date on the state’s supply of the sedative midazolam, part of the lethal injection cocktail.
Court rulings stopped four of the scheduled executions, but the other four were allowed to proceed during the final two weeks of April.
Williams, the last of the four inmates to be executed, died seven minutes after receiving a lethal injection.
But it was not an easy seven minutes.
Before Williams died April 27, an Associated Press observer reported he coughed, convulsed and lurched, making sounds that could be heard even without the benefit of a microphone.
The AP reported Williams’ body jerked 15 times and bounced violently against the leather strap around his waist.
A spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) called the movements “an involuntary muscle reaction” that often happens after the injection of midazolam.
State officials also said Arkansas’ use of midazolam, which is the first of three drugs administered in a lethal injection, worked better than it had in other states where prisoners have taken as long as two hours to die.
All four prisoners executed in Arkansas took their last breath within 20 minutes of midazolam flowing into their bodies.
“Any amount of movement he might have had was far less than any of his victims,” said Jodie Efird, a daughter of one of Williams’ victims.
Hutchinson told NBC News that the ACLU and other capital punishment opponents had their court briefs written before the needle went into Williams’ arm.
“They came down here thinking if there is one sigh, one movement of the head, we’re going to call it a torturous execution,” Hutchinson said.
However, Sklar said the pain that Williams seems to have suffered should be considered a violation of his constitutional rights.
“Reports that Kenneth Williams coughed, convulsed, and lurched during his execution raise serious questions about whether the state, in its rush to use up its supply of midazolam before it expired, has violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment,” Sklar said in a statement.
“Mr. Williams’ execution must be reviewed to investigate the witnesses’ accounts and determine whether the state tortured Mr. Williams before killing him.”
Gov. Hutchinson termed the ACLU’s call for a full investigation “totally unjustified.”
“You don’t call for an independent investigation unless there’s some reason for it,” CBS News reported Hutchinson told reporters the day after Williams died. “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.”
An Arkansas jury ordered that Williams be put to death for the murder of Cecil Boren, a former deputy warden Williams killed following a 1999 prison escape. Williams had only served three weeks of a life term for killing a college cheerleader, 19-year-old Nikki Hurd, when he busted out by hiding in a 500-gallon container of hog slop.
Williams was also convicted of killing a Missouri man, Michael Greenwood, after his escape. Later, Williams would confess to killing a third man, Jerrell Jenkins, during his murderous spree in 1999.
“In the last seven days, after decades of waiting, the families of Debra Reese, Christine Lewis, Mary Phillips, Lorraine Anne Barrett, Stacy Errickson, Nikki Hurd, Jerrell Jenkins and Cecil Boren were finally provided the justice they were promised and they also saw that our system of laws have meaning,” Hutchinson said in a statement.
“Carrying out the penalty of the jury in the Kenneth Williams case was necessary,” Hutchinson added. “There has never been a question of guilt.”
No matter what the investigation into Williams’ death shows, Arkansas is still left with a major Death Row difficulty.
Twenty-nine men, all of them convicted killers, are scheduled to die by the needle in the state’s prison system. But Arkansas’ supply of midazolam has expired. There is none left for any more executions.
Hutchinson said he had no answer to that dilemma.
“I have some confidence that there will be a supplier and availability of the drug when it is needed again, but there is no guarantee of that,” Hutchinson said.
There is one thing Hutchinson said he is sure of, and that is that the people of Arkansas “still support the death penalty.”