This spring marks the fifth anniversary of one of the most troubling months in America’s recent death penalty history. In April 2017, the state of Arkansas, with its supply of lethal injection drugs about to expire and with 32 inmates still on its death row, announced a plan to carry out eight executions, two a day, over an eleven-day period.
Though legal problems halted half of them, four went ahead as planned. They were all conducted with a cocktail of lethal drugs that Arkansas had never before employed. That cocktail started with the sedative midazolam, followed by two other drugs—vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride.
Looking back at Arkansas’s 2017 execution spree reveals a pattern of problems now all-too-familiar in America’s death penalty system, including judicial indifference to claims of innocence, racial discrimination, and botched lethal injections.
What happened in Arkansas, plus what has and has not happened in the intervening five years, is both a cautionary tale and a reminder of the death penalty’s increasingly precarious position in this country.
First, the cautionary tale.
The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) catalogs the problems that plagued the Arkansas executions. It notes that the state carried the country’s “first double execution in nearly 17 years, at least two of the executions were botched, and one of the people executed had serious claims of innocence that were never reviewed by Arkansas courts.”
Highlighting the role of race in the death penalty system, the DPIC reports that “Half of the executions were stayed. Three of four Black men were executed. Three of four White men were at least temporarily spared.” That racial disparity, disturbing in its own right, is all too typical of
outcomes in the criminal justice system.
Ledell Lee was the first of the Black men to be executed. He was put to death even though there were serious, unresolved questions about whether he committed the 1993 murder of Debra Reese in Jacksonville, Arkansas.
Lee had been tried twice for the Reese murder. During his first trial, several people testified in support of Lee’s alibi and that trial had ended in a hung jury. At his second trial, however, the defense inexplicably called no alibi witnesses. This time, the jury found Lee guilty and sentenced him to death
In both trials the prosecution presented no physical evidence linking Lee to the crime. As the DPIC notes, “No fingerprint evidence from the scene matched Lee and no DNA evidence was presented to the jury.”
In the run-up to his execution, Lee’s lawyers his lawyers requested more DNA testing using techniques not available three decades ago. But the courts denied their request.
Lee maintained his innocence from the day he was arrested to the day he died. And DNA found on the weapon used to murder Reese which was tested after Lee’s death did not match his. Instead, it came from an unidentified other man.
Lee’s April 20th execution began when the execution team started the flow of midazolam at 11:44 p.m. The coroner pronounced him dead 12 minutes after the execution began.
Emboldened by this apparent “success,” four days later, Arkansas went ahead with its plan to kill Jack Jones, the only white man of the four people Arkansas executed.
Jones’s execution, however, did not go smoothly.
The problems began with the execution team’s flailing attempts to place an IV in Jones’s veins. Although Arkansas officials claimed that it took eight minutes to place Jones’s IV, others said it actually took 45 minutes to find a suitable vein. The autopsy report noted that medical examiners “found five needle marks on Jones’s neck and clavicle… area,” and that the needle marks had been covered up with makeup.
According to Jones’s lawyer, his client began to gasp and gulp for air four minutes into the execution—a sign that he was experiencing physical pain. He added that Jones’s mouth moved like a “fish… chomping on bait.”
Botched lethal injections, like Jones’s, are a continuing and problematic part of the story of capital punishment in the United States That reality was again brought home the same day Arkansas executed Jones when it also put Marcel Williams to death.
The Williams execution lasted 17 minutes, and he continued to move “up until three minutes before he was declared dead.” Jacob Rosenberg, one of the reporters at the Williams execution, described the body movements that occurred during the time before he was finally declared dead. “His eyes began to droop and eventually close… His breaths became deep and heavy. His back arched off the gurney [countless times] as he sucked in air.”
Both the Jones and Williams executions were deeply troubling. But an even more troubling execution took place three days later when Kenneth Williams was put to death in Arkansas’s fourth and final killing of the week. He became the 200th person, and the 140th Black man, executed in Arkansas since 1913.
Kenneth Williams’s execution by lethal injection was neither painless nor swift. It involved extensive physical agony and evidence of suffocation. About three minutes after receiving a dose of midazolam, Williams began to thrash about and convulse on the gurney. One reporter said that he “lurched forward 15 times, then another five times, more slowly” before gasping and taking labored breaths. Witnesses could hear him moaning and groaning.
An independent autopsy concluded that Williams “experienced pain” and likely felt “a sensation of air hunger, fear, shortness of breath, respiratory distress, and dizziness
The story of what happened when Arkansas went ahead with this new drug cocktail tells, in condensed form, the story of lethal injection’s recent history in the United States. Once touted as a technological miracle that would ensure executions would be safe, reliable, and humane, lethal injection has had a history marked by problems, mishaps, and mayhem.
But the Arkansas story is not just a reminder of the death penalty’s intractable problems. It also points to the death penalty’s increasingly precarious position.
This is demonstrated by the fact that Arkansas has not executed anyone since 2017. According to the DPIC, that makes Arkansas one of the 39 states that have either “abolished the death penalty or not carried out an execution in five or more years.” Twenty-three of those states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment altogether. Three other states and the federal government currently have moratoria on executions.
Those developments reflect America’s deep doubts about capital punishment. They are signs of hope that, despite the horror of what Arkansas did five years ago to Ledell Lee, Jack Jones, Marcel Williams, and Kenneth Williams, this country is moving inexorably, if not easily, toward ending what Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun once called its “cruel…death penalty experiment.”