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Top Arkansas Prison Officials, State Lawmakers Describe Witnessing 2017 Executions

Varner Arkansas Department of Correction Cummins Prison
Michael Hibblen

Attorneys defending the state in a lawsuit by Arkansas death row inmates challenging the use of a drug in lethal injections called a series of officials to the stand Tuesday who witnessed executions carried out two years ago. They included the warden who organized the executions, a former prosecutor and two state senators, with all testifying that the inmates did not seem to experience any pain.

The federal trial is midway through its second week. Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelly are named as defendants. Attorneys for the 18 death row inmates have argued the sedative midazolam, which is the first drug injected, does not do an effective job to keep inmates from feeling pain when the second and third drugs paralyze the muscles and stop the heart.

Cummins Unit Warden William Straughn testified at length about his nearly four decades of working for the department and his experiences with executions. Straughn’s prison is where the Arkansas "death house" is located and said he was asked how best to carry out several executions in April 2017 before the state’s supply of a lethal injection drug expired.

Straughn suggested holding multiple executions, as was done in the 1990s when two or three inmates would be killed on the same evening at one hour intervals.

"Executions are stressful on the staff. We were doing multiple executions starting with a list of nine and it went to eight and there’s a lot of issues that have to be dealt with. There’s a lot of preparation that has to be done. If we had done executions one a week, one every two weeks, whatever it may have been, it would have been a long, stressful several months to carry out," Straughn testified.

He spoke about holding meetings with the department director, state police and prison staff to plan a timeframe for the lethal injections and to get the unit and people involved ready. That included conducting practice sessions using prison staff in place of the inmates.

Straughn also detailed how he would escort the condemned inmates when they would be transferred in the days before an execution to holding cells which are just feet away from the execution room. He said he would speak with them each day about what the process was and ask about any needs or concerns they had.

When it was time to bring inmates inside the execution room, Straughn said he would be there as they were shackled, walked inside, and would assist as the inmates used a stool to step up onto the gurney with straps then put in place to hold them down. An IV would be inserted, then Straughn said he would open the curtain for witnesses to watch. When everything was in place, Straughn said it was his job to announce that the execution was ready to proceed. Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelly would also be in the room, Straughn said.

The execution that has been discussed the most during the trial was the one involving Kenneth Williams, who has been described as lurching forward repeatedly. Straughn said it lasted about five to 10 seconds with Williams showing no facial changes, making no sounds and not showing any signs of physical pain.

State Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, was a citizen witness to Williams’ execution.

"As an Arkansas state senator, I have a strong say in public policy behind the death penalty and I wanted to witness that myself to see what the process was like. To see if that would change my determination for the public policy of it," Garner said.

He testified that he wasn’t alarmed by what he saw Williams do as the lethal injection was underway. As a former U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret in Afghanistan, Garner said he has witnessed people being killed or injured and can recognize pain.

"For approximately 10 to 15 seconds there were some brief involuntary muscle spasms. His chest rose two to three inches a few times," Garner said. "I call it involuntary because I didn’t see any pain on his face, no grimacing. I didn’t hear any noises that would indicate pain."

Another state legislator who said he too wanted to see what a lethal injection looked like also testified Tuesday for the state. Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, watched the executions of Jack Jones and Marcel Williams on April 24, 2017, saying he saw no signs of pain of discomfort.

"I chose to go as a citizen witness to go a little deeper than that as a lawmaker," Hammer said. "I wanted to witness firsthand what exactly occurs, how the process works, what the inmates go through with the dying process."

Earlier Tuesday, Arkansas Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Kokes testified about conducting an administrative review of an autopsy on Kenneth Williams. He also spoke about a second autopsy requested by public defenders that found a deeper wound on Williams’ head that plaintiffs in this case suggest may have come from his convulsions on the gurney during his execution.

Kokes testified that such a reaction is not a sign of consciousness and not uncommon for someone who is thrust into a deep drug-induced central nervous system depression caused by a high dose of midazolam.

"I think under the influence of that much midazolam, any perception of discomfort on his part would have been extremely muted, if not completely absent. He certainly would not have been experiencing the same type of pain that you or I would experience right now if we were struck hard enough on that part of the head to feel pain," Kokes said.

Attorneys for plaintiffs and defendants are to reconvene at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday, with testimony to resume at 9 a.m.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
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