Arkansas prepared to execute its fourth inmate in eight days Thursday night, wrapping up an accelerated schedule of lethal injections that was set to beat the expiration date of one of the drugs.
Kenneth Williams, 38, was scheduled to die at 7 p.m. Thursday, but the state was awaiting word from the U.S. Supreme Court on Williams' last appeals before moving forward. His death warrant expires at midnight.
Court filings Thursday afternoon followed two threads: that Arkansas executions this week were so flawed that there is little doubt Williams will suffer as he dies, and that he has an intellectual disability that would make him ineligible for execution.
So far, courts have ruled against him, with both the Arkansas Supreme Court and a federal appeals court rejecting Williams' requests for stays. His appeals were pending at the U.S. Supreme Court after a federal judge turned back a last-minute request to stop the execution.
A spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson says the state will not proceed with the execution until the high court weighs in.
If Williams dies, it would be Arkansas' fourth execution in eight days after not conducting one since 2005. Two of the men died in a double execution Monday, the nation's first since 2000.
State officials have said the three executions already conducted — of Ledell Lee, Jack Jones Jr. and Marcel Williams — didn't go awry. And their lawyers told the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday that while tests showed Kenneth Williams might have "low average" intelligence, he didn't cooperate fully with the doctors testing him. They also said Williams' previous lawyers "unequivocally abandoned" a similar claim because testing showed he wasn't intellectually disabled. The 8th Circuit judges agreed and refused to stop the execution.
Williams' lawyers say he has sickle cell trait, lupus and brain damage, and that the combined maladies could subject him to an exceptionally painful execution in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Arkansas' "one size fits all" execution protocol could leave him in pain after a paralytic agent renders him unable to move, they say.
"After the state injects Mr. Williams with vecuronium bromide ... most or all of the manifestations of his extreme pain and suffering will not be discernible to witnesses," they wrote to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which rejected his request to stop the execution.
Also Thursday, Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project asked to file a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Williams' request, arguing that his claims of intellectual disability have not been fully explored.
The attorney general's office described Williams' appeal as "procedural gamesmanship" to put off the execution.
Under Hutchinson's initial plan, Arkansas would have put eight men to death in an 11-day period — the nation's fastest pace since the U.S. Supreme Court reauthorized the death penalty in 1976. Courts issued stays for four of the inmates.
In one court filing, Williams' lawyers pointed to Monday's execution of Jones, during which his mouth moved after he should have been unconscious, they argued. Jones' spiritual adviser called it "a sort of gurgling" while an observer from the state attorney general's office said it was "snoring; deep, deep sleep." A federal judge dismissed a challenge to the night's second execution, saying Jones' execution did not appear to be "torturous and inhumane" in violation of constitutional standards.
The inmate's lawyers also cited problems with Monday's second execution, during which Marcel Williams' head tilted back slightly as he breathed deeply and, three minutes after his execution started, his head turned slightly to the left. One witness said it appeared the inmate arched his back. Another said his breathing included "jerky motions." An Associated Press reporter in the room noted four quick breaths at one point.
Wendy Kelley, director of the Arkansas Department of Correction, said in an affidavit Thursday that she saw none of that activity.
Kenneth Williams was sentenced to death for killing former deputy warden Cecil Boren after escaping from the Cummins Unit prison in a 500-gallon barrel of hog slop in 1999. He left the prison less than three weeks into a life term for killing University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff cheerleader Dominique Hurd in 1998.
After jumping from the barrel of kitchen scraps, he sneaked along a tree line until he reached Boren's house. He killed Boren, stole guns and Boren's truck, then drove to Missouri. There, he crashed into a water-delivery truck, killing the driver, Michael Greenwood. While in prison, he confessed to killing another person in 1998.
Greenwood's family wrote to Hutchinson asking him to delay Williams' execution so it could ask the Arkansas Parole Board to recommend clemency for the inmate. In a last-minute court filing, Williams' attorneys said he should receive a stay because the Greenwood family was not notified of his clemency hearing last month, but a federal judge rejected that request Thursday night.
"When he took my father from us, Mr. Williams caused us all a great deal of pain," wrote Kayla Greenwood, who was 5 when her father died. "We still miss him and we still hurt. That does not mean that asking you (to) spare Mr. Williams is not the right thing to do. It is."
Hutchinson said in a statement that while he appreciated Greenwood's "genuine spirit of forgiveness and compassion," he had to consider viewpoints from other victims' families, including Boren's.
"Kenneth Williams murdered multiple people, and actions have consequences," the governor said.
At the time of Boren's death, investigators said it did not appear Boren was targeted because of his former employment by the Arkansas Department of Correction.