VARNER, Ark. (AP) — A federal judge cleared Arkansas to perform a rare double execution Monday night, lifting her order that had temporarily blocked a second lethal injection after attorneys raised concerns about the first.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker temporarily stopped Arkansas from executing Marcel Williams, but lifted her stay after about an hour. Attorneys had argued that the first inmate executed, Jack Jones, gulped for air and suffered during his lethal injection. The Arkansas attorney general’s office disputed that account.
A spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said Williams’ execution Monday night could proceed after the order was lifted. It wasn’t clear if his lawyers were pursuing other options to delay the punishment, with his death warrant due to expire at midnight.
An hour after Baker’s stay was lifted, there was no word from the execution chamber on whether Williams’ lethal injection had begun.
Jones received a lethal injection earlier Monday evening that lasted 14 minutes.
In the emergency filing, Williams’ attorneys wrote that officials spent 45 minutes trying to place an IV line in Jones’ neck before placing it elsewhere. It argued that Williams, who weighs 400 pounds, could face a “torturous” death because of his weight.
Intravenous lines are placed before witnesses are allowed access to the death chamber.
In the court filing, Williams’ attorneys, citing unidentified eyewitnesses, said Jones “was moving his lips and gulping for air.”
Arkansas’ attorney general says the attorneys’ account of the Jones execution was “inaccurate.”
An Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution said Jones moved his lips briefly after the midazolam was administered, and officials put a tongue depressor in his mouth intermittently for the first few minutes. His chest stopped moving two minutes after they checked for consciousness, and he was pronounced dead at 7:20 p.m.
Jones, who’d argued that his health conditions could lead to a painful death, gave a lengthy last statement. His final words were: “I’m sorry.”
“I hope over time you can learn who I really am and I am not a monster,” he said in the roughly 2-minute statement.
Williams was scheduled to be executed at 8:15 p.m. Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his final appeals, but Baker’s order temporarily placed that on hold.
Jones was sent to death row for the 1995 rape and killing of Mary Phillips. He was also convicted of attempting to kill Phillips’ 11-year-old daughter and was convicted in another rape and killing in Florida.
Jones said earlier this month that he was ready for execution. He used a wheelchair and he’d had a leg amputated in prison because of diabetes.
The state conducted its first execution last week after a nearly 12-year hiatus. Initially, Gov. Asa Hutchinson scheduled four double executions over an 11-day period in April. The eight executions would have been the most by a state in such a compressed period since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The state said the executions needed to be carried out before its supply of midazolam, one lethal injection drug, expires on April 30.
The first three executions were canceled because of court decisions, then inmate Ledell Lee was executed last week.
Williams’ “morbid obesity makes it likely that either the IV line cannot be placed or that it will be placed in error, thus causing substantial damage (like a collapsed lung),” his attorneys wrote in an earlier court filing asking justices to block the execution.
Both men were served last meals on Monday afternoon, Arkansas Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves said. Jones had fried chicken, potato logs with tartar sauce, beef jerky bites, three candy bars, a chocolate milkshake and fruit punch. Williams had fried chicken, banana pudding, nachos, two sodas and potato logs with ketchup, Graves said.
Before Lee’s execution Thursday, Arkansas hadn’t put an inmate to death since 2005. In several of the 31 states where executions are legal, drug shortages have often forced delays as manufacturers prohibit their use in executions. Arkansas believes that secrecy it grants to suppliers can solve that problem, though it still has difficulty obtaining the drugs. Courts have also forced rewrites of Arkansas’ lethal injection protocols, causing further delays. Jones and Williams committed their crimes more than two decades ago.
In recent pleadings before state and federal courts, the inmates said the three drugs Arkansas uses to execute prisoners — midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride — could be ineffective because of their poor health.
Jones, 52, lost a leg to diabetes and was on insulin. Williams, 46, weighs 400 pounds, is diabetic and has concerns that the execution team might not be able to find a suitable vein to support an intravenous line.
The poor health of both men, their lawyers claimed, could make it difficult for them to respond during a consciousness check following a megadose of midazolam. The state shouldn’t risk giving them drugs to stop their lungs and hearts if they aren’t unconscious, they have told courts.
The last state to put more than one inmate to death on the same day was Texas, which executed two killers in August 2000. Oklahoma planned a double execution in 2014 but scrapped plans for the second one after the execution of Clayton Lockett went awry.
Arkansas executed four men in an eight-day period in 1960. The only quicker pace included quadruple executions in 1926 and 1930.
Williams 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 Williams abducted and raped two other women in the days before he was arrested in Errickson’s death. Williams admitted responsibility to the state Parole Board last month.
“I wish I could take it back, but I can’t,” Williams told the board.
Jones was given the death penalty for the 1995 rape and killing of Mary Phillips. He strangled her with the cord to a coffee pot.
In a letter earlier this month, Jones said he was ready to be killed by the state. The letter, which his attorney read aloud at his clemency hearing, went on to say: “I shall not ask to be forgiven, for I haven’t the right.”
Including Jones, eight people have been executed in the United States this year, four in Texas, two in Arkansas and one each in Missouri and Virginia. Last year, 20 people were executed, down from 98 in 1999 and the lowest number since 14 in 1991, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Associated Press writers Jill Bleed contributed to this report from Little Rock.
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