Death Penalty

Executed Arkansas inmates’ attorneys call for investigation of “botched” lethal injections

Arkansas concluded its 10-day execution spree Thursday night with the killing of inmate Kenneth Williams, but the state’s legal battles show no signs of ending. Attorneys for death row prisoners in the state called Friday for an independent investigation into the four lethal injections conducted over the past week-and-a-half.

“State officials must not be allowed to cover up what went wrong in all four of these executions,” Scott Braden, of the Arkansas Federal Defender’s Office, said in a statement.

Attorneys from Braden’s office said they filed an emergency motion Friday, asking a federal court to immediately preserve evidence from Kenneth Williams’ body. Media witnesses reported seeing Williams “manifesting signs of vigorous consciousness such as lurching, jerking, convulsing, and coughing during the course of the execution,” long after the controversial sedative midazolam should have taken effect, according to the motion.

The Associated Press reported that Williams lurched forward 20 times in 20 seconds minutes after the sedative was administered.

This means, lawyers say, that Williams potentially remained conscious throughout his execution. Midazolam is meant to render the inmate unconscious before a second drug, vercuronium bromide, paralyzes him. At that point, he would be unable to move or let executioners know if the midazolam hadn’t taken full effect. The administration of the final drug, potassium chloride — it ultimately induces cardiac arrest — would then be excruciating.

“If the midazolam fails to keep the prisoner under anesthesia, the prisoner would be awake and aware but unable to move or speak or even open his eyes, so he would then look completely serene despite being in agony,” Braden said, adding that forcing Williams to experience such pain without a sedative would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which outlaws cruel and unusual punishment.

During the recent executions of Dennis McGuire in Ohio, Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, Joseph Wood in Arizona, and Ronald Smith in Alabama, the inmates regained some level of consciousness due to midazolam’s failure to work properly.

Questions about whether midazolam was appropriate to use dominated legal challenges leading up to the Arkansas executions, and attorneys said their fears may have come true during the Monday double execution of inmates Jack Jones and Marcel Williams. Jones’ attorney alleges that minutes after Jones was injected with midazolam, he “was moving his lips and gulping for air. Mr. Jones’ movements after the midazolam was administered is evidence of continued consciousness.”

One of Marcel Williams’ attorneys, who was present for his client’s execution, said that Williams was moving his eyes three minutes before the time of death. She also wasn’t sure that executioners checked to make sure he was unconscious after the midazolam was administered.

Arkansas cut the sound from the execution chamber to the room in which witnesses watched after Marcel Williams declined to make a final statement — many states have similar protocols — making it more difficult for the witnesses to understand what was happening during the man’s death, Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham told VICE News Thursday.

“Everybody agreed that he was moving his lips, and without the sound you don’t whether he’s gurgling, you don’t know whether he’s gasping, you don’t know what it is,” Dunham said. “With their affirmatively making unavailable any of the audio evidence, that has left it impossible to determine what happened.”

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (pictured above) said in a Friday press conference that all of the executions went according to plan. “I see no reason for any investigation other than the routine review that is done after every execution,” he said.

A spokesperson for federal Judge Kristine Baker, who will review the emergency motion, declined to comment on when a ruling might come down.

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