Lawyers Call for Investigation of "Horrifying" Arkansas Execution After Witnesses Report "Coughing, Convulsing"Posted: April 28, 2017
Calling eyewitness accounts "horrifying," attorneys for Arkansas prisoner Kenneth Williams (pictured) are seeking the preservation of evidence and "a full investigation" into what they described as Williams' "problematic execution." Williams' attorney, Shawn Nolan, said the lawyers had "tried over and over again to get the state to comport with their own protocol to avoid torturing our client to death, and yet reports from the execution witnesses indicate that Mr. Williams suffered during this execution." Media witnesses reported that they observed Williams "coughing, convulsing, lurching, jerking, with sound that was audible even with the microphone turned off" during his execution. According to Associated Press reporter Kelly Kissel, "Williams' body jerked 15 times in quick succession — lurching violently against the leather restraint across his chest." Kissel, who has witnessed ten executions, said, "This is the most I've seen an inmate move three or four minutes in." Nolan called the situation "very disturbing, but not at all surprising, given the history of the risky sedative midazolam, which has been used in many botched executions." A spokesperson for Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson dismissed the witness accounts, calling the execution "flawless" and Williams' movement an "involuntary muscular reaction." Nolan characterized the spokesperson's statement as "simply trying to whitewash the reality of what happened." Williams was the fourth person executed in Arkansas in eight days. The state had originally planned to execute eight inmates in eleven days, but courts stayed four of the executions for reasons specific to those prisoners. Experts, including former correctional officials, had warned that the rushed execution schedule increased the risk of problematic executions, and attorneys for the prisoners challenged the use of midazolam as the first drug in the three-drug execution protocol, arguing it would not adequately anesthetize the prisoner. Three days before Kenneth Williams' execution, problems were reported in Arkansas' execution of Jack Jones, but a federal judge allowed the state to proceed with the execution of Marcel Williams on the same night.
The conditions in which prisoners on Texas' death row are confined are "harsh and inhumane," violate international human rights norms, and amount to "a severe and relentless act of torture," according to a new study by the University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic. The study, "Designed to Break You," collected accounts from former death-row prisoners who had been exonerated or who had received lesser sentences after their death sentences had been overturned. Their stories revealed numerous problems with death-row conditions, including, "mandatory solitary confinement, a total ban on contact visits with both attorneys and friends and family, substandard physical and psychological health care, and a lack of access to sufficient religious services." Every prisoner on death row spends about 23 hours a day in an 8-by-12 foot cell for the duration of their time on death row. "This prolonged solitary confinement has overwhelmingly negative effects on inmates’ mental health," the study reports, "exacerbating existing mental health conditions and causing many prisoners to develop mental illness for the first time." Ariel Dulitzky, director of the Human Rights Clinic, said, "Any person who is kept in solitary confinement for more than 15 days starts to suffer mental and psychological effects that cannot be reversed, and that fits the definition of torture." The report concludes that Texas death-row "conditions fall woefully behind international standards for confinement" and offers 13 recommendations to bring conditions in line with international norms. The recommendations include using solitary confinement only as a punitive measure of last resort and banning it altogether for prisoners with mental illness or intellectual disability. The report also recommends that death-row prisoners be permitted contact visits with their lawyers, family, and friends and that they "have access to natural light, fresh air and outdoor activities."
After spending more than a year studying Oklahoma's capital punishment practices, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission has unanimously recommended that the state extend its current moratorium on executions "until significant reforms are accomplished." The bipartisan commission issued its report on April 25, 2017, reaching what it characterized as "disturbing" findings that "led Commission members to question whether the death penalty can be administered in a way that ensures no innocent person is put to death." The report contains recommendations for more than 40 reforms to virtually all areas of Oklahoma's death penalty system. Oklahoma has not carried out an execution since January 15, 2015, when the state used an unauthorized drug to execute Charles Warner. On October 16, 2015, lawyers for the state agreed to a federal court order barring executions until at least five months after a new execution protocol is in place. Warner's execution also prompted a grand jury investigation, which, like the Commission report, was highly critical of Oklahoma's capital punishment system. The Commission, whose eleven members included former Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry, Judge Reta M. Stubhar of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, attorneys, law professors, mental health professionals, and others, examined the death penalty process from arrest to execution. The report states, "Commission members agreed that, at a minimum, those who are sentenced to death should receive this sentence only after a fair and impartial process that ensures they deserve the ultimate penalty of death. ... Unfortunately, a review of the evidence demonstrates that the death penalty, even in Oklahoma, has not always been imposed and carried out fairly, consistently, and humanely, as required by the federal and state constitutions. These shortcomings have severe consequences for the accused and their families, for victims and their families, and for all citizens of Oklahoma." In particular, the Commission raised concerns about wrongful convictions, focusing 10 recommendations on the issue of "innocence protection." Other recommendations dealt with forensic practices, training of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges, determinations of death eligibility, the clemency process, and the execution protocol.
Arkansas carried out the nation's first double execution in nearly 17 years on April 24, 2017. The state executed Jack Jones (pictured, l.) and Marcel Williams (pictured, r.) about three hours apart, with Williams' execution delayed following allegations that Jones' execution may have been botched. Williams' attorneys filed an emergency request for a stay in federal district court, saying that "Mr. Jones's execution appeared to be torturous and inhumane." The state denied the allegations, calling them "utterly baseless." According to Williams' filing, prison staff unsuccessfully tried for 45 minutes to place a central line in Jones' neck, before eventually placing one elsewhere on his body. Witnesses reported that corrections officials did not wait the mandated 5 minutes to perform a consciousness check on Jones, and that he was moving his lips and gulping for air after the sedative midazolam had been administered. U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued a temporary stay in response to Williams' request, held a short hearing on the issue, then lifted the stay at approximately 9:30 pm Central time. The double execution was part of an unprecedented schedule of executions set by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson in order to use the state's supply of midazolam, the first of three execution drugs, before it expired. The governor initially set eight executions for an 11-day period, with two executions scheduled for each of four nights. The first two executions, set for April 17, were both stayed indefinitely, one execution was performed and one stayed on April 21. One of the prisoners scheduled for execution on April 27, Jason McGehee, has already received a stay of execution after the Arkansas Parole Board voted 6-1 to recommend that he be granted clemency. Litigation is still pending in the case of Kenneth Williams, the other prisoner scheduled for execution on April 27.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a final order refusing to release illegally imported medicines that the states of Texas and Arizona had intended to use in executions. On April 20, 2017, the FDA notified prison officials that it would not release the two states' shipments of 1,000 vials each of sodium thiopental that the FDA had seized at U.S. airports in October 2015 when the states had attempted to import the drug from a supplier in India. Both shipments were halted at the airport by FDA officials, who said the importation of the drugs violated federal regulations. A third shipment of 1,000 vials of the drug ordered by Nebraska was halted by FedEx before it left India because the shipping company was not provided paperwork indicating FDA approval to import the drugs. Sodium thiopental, an anesthetic widely used in executions prior to 2010, is no longer produced by any U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers, and the FDA has said that it has no legal uses in the U.S. In January 2017, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice sued the FDA, demanding a final decision on the detained imports. In a statement, the FDA announced it had "made a final decision, refusing admission of the detained drugs into the United States." FDA press officer Lyndsay Meyer said that the shipments of sodium thiopental had been confiscated because the detained drugs appeared to be unapproved new drugs and misbranded drugs. The shipments, the agency said, must be either exported or destroyed within 90 days. Texas insisted that the import was covered by a "law enforcement exemption," because the drug was intended for use in executions. The FDA said its decision was made in compliance with a 2012 court order: "The court order requires the FDA to refuse admission to the US any shipment of foreign manufactured sodium thiopental being offered for importation that appears to be an unapproved new drug or a misbranded drug." Since 2012, Texas has used another anesthetic, pentobarbital, in all executions. Arizona has used several different lethal-injection protocols since sodium thiopental became unavailable.
On April 20, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz (pictured), whom the Commonwealth had scheduled to be executed on April 25. Teleguz will now serve a sentence of life without parole. It was the first death-penalty clemency ever issued by Gov. McAuliffe. The official statement released to the media in conjunction with the commutation outlined several of the factors that influenced the Governor's decision, including the prosecution's use of false evidence that tainted the jury's choice to sentence Teleguz to death. "[D]uring the trial, evidence was admitted implicating Mr. Teleguz in another murder in a small Pennsylvania town," McAuliffe said. "In arguing for the death penalty, the prosecutor made explicit reference to this evidence in arguing that Mr. Teleguz was so dangerous that he needed to be put to death. We now know that no such murder occurred, much less with any involvement by Mr. Teleguz. It was false information, plain and simple, and while I am sure that the evidence was admitted in a good-faith belief in its truthfulness at the time, we now know that to be incorrect." McAuliffe also cited the disproportionality of sentencing Teleguz to death when Michael Hetrick, the admitted killer, received a sentence of life without parole in exchange for his testimony against Teleguz. "To allow a sentence to stand based on false information and speculation is a violation of the very principles of justice our system holds dear," McAuliffe said. Teleguz maintains that he is innocent of the crime, and his clemency petition received support from numerous political, religious, and business leaders.
In 1949, Norma Padgett, a white 17-year-old, falsely accused four young black men in Groveland, Florida of kidnapping and raping her. Nearly 70 years later, the state of Florida is apologizing to the families of the "Groveland Four," two of whom were murdered and two of whom were wrongly sentenced to death. After the false accusations, enraged white residents of Lake County went on a violent rampage, shooting at and burning the homes of black residents. The Governor sought help from the National Guard to quell the violence. One of the falsely accused young men, Ernest Thomas, escaped from the county jail and was shot dead by an angry mob of 1,000 men led by Lake County sheriff Willis V. McCall. Thomas was shot 400 times. The three others who had been falsely accused were beaten into giving false confessions, then quickly tried and convicted by an all-white jury. The youngest, Charles Greenlee, who was only 16 years old, was sentenced to life in prison. Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, both Army veterans, were sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed their convictions and ordered a new trial. During their transport from the county prison for court proceedings, Sheriff McCall claimed the pair tried to escape and shot both men, killing Shepherd. Irvin played dead, survived the shooting, and was again tried and sentenced to death. Irvin received a last-minute reprieve from execution and his sentence was commuted by the Governor. Greenlee and Irvin were both granted parole in the 1960s. Irvin died in 1970 and Greenlee in 2012. The Groveland Four, as the men came to be known, were finally given a formal apology from the Florida House of Representatives on April 19, 2017, nearly 70 years after they were first accused. Rep. Bobby DuBose (D-Fort Lauderdale), sponsored the bill and said, "This resolution, while seemingly minute, symbolizes the great state of Florida looking those families in the eyes — families, with children, who grew up not knowing their fathers but only knew their records. This resolution is us simply saying, ‘We’re sorry’ — understanding we will never know or make up for the pain we have caused." The resolution, which says the Groveland Four, “were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history,” and calls on Gov. Rick Scott to expedite posthumous pardons, passed the House unanimously. The Senate is expected to vote soon on its version of the bill.
Two Arkansas death-row prisoners who are scheduled be executed on April 20 have asked the Arkansas courts to stay their executions to permit DNA testing in their cases. Stacey Johnson (pictured, l.) and Ledell Lee (pictured, r.) both say they did not commit the crimes for which they were sentenced to death, and both say that DNA testing methods not available at the time of their trials could prove their innocence. Stacey Johnson was convicted of the 1993 rape and murder of Carol Jean Heath. His conviction rested largely on testimony from the victim's 6-year-old daughter, but records obtained by the defense after the trial indicate that the girl told her therapist that she had not seen anything and was being pressured by her family to identify Johnson. Technology available at the time of Johnson's trial was not sensitive enough to provide DNA results from the sexual assault evidence collected from the victim's body, but newer methods may be able to rule out Johnson and even provide a match to an alternative suspect. At the trial, it was revealed that the victim's boyfriend had abused his former wife for four years, requiring her to obtain emergency custody of her children. It was also revealed that his abuse of his ex-wife included biting her breasts. Significantly, bite marks were identified on the victim’s breasts in Johnson's case. Bryce Benjet of the Innocence Project, which filed Johnson's request, said, "This is not some sort of last-minute, hail mary pass. Johnson asked for DNA testing in earlier appeals, but those requests were denied by State and federal courts. There have been revolutionary advancements in DNA testing since this case was initially investigated which could tell once and for all who actually committed this crime." In a separate filing, Ledell Lee sought new DNA testing of hair and blood evidence, neither of which provided conclusive results using 1995 techniques. Despite a bloody crime scene, no physical evidence directly implicated Lee in the murder. No fingerprint evidence from the scene matched Lee and no DNA evidence was presented to the jury. A state’s expert witness, however, testified at trial that he had found "Negroid head hair" at the scene and the state said there were small spots of blood on Lee's shoes. Lee's lawyers argue that "probative biological evidence currently in the custodian control of the state may now be able to provide—through the use of modern, cutting edge DNA testing technology—confirmation of the veracity of Mr. Lee’s innocence claim." Both defendants' requests have been denied by county judges, and have been appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. [UPDATE: The Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Stacey Johnson on the DNA issue, but denied Ledell Lee's motion for a stay. Arkansas executed Lee on April 20.]
Caddo Parish, Louisiana prosecutors formally dropped charges against Rodricus Crawford (pictured) on April 17, exonerating him in a controversial death penalty case that had attracted national attention amid evidence of race discrimination, prosecutorial excess, and actual innocence. He is the 158th person exonerated from death row in the United States since 1973. Crawford was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to death on charges he had murdered his one-year-old son. Crawford's appellate counsel, Cecilia Kappel, argued that the testimony underlying his conviction—the opinion of a local doctor who claimed the infant had been suffocated—was contradicted by autopsy results that showed pervasive bronchopneumonia in the baby's lungs and sepsis in his blood. After the trial, Kappel presented additional evidence from experts in the fields of pediatric pathology, pediatric neuropathology, and pediatric infectious disease that the child had died of natural causes. In a statement announcing that it was dropping the charges against Crawford, the Caddo Parish District Attorney's Office said, "New evidence presented after the trial raised questions about the degree of pneumonia together with bacteria in the child's blood indicative of sepsis are possibilities that require consideration. ...The death of a child is a tragedy under any circumstance for the victim, the family and the community as a whole, but this office is charged with the task to consider all of the evidence in a case and to bring a charge when the evidence can support it. For these reasons, the State has elected not to retry Rodricus Crawford." In November 2016, the Louisiana Supreme Court had ordered a new trial for Crawford because prosecutor Dale Cox had improperly removed jurors on the basis of race. Caddo has a documented pattern of racially biased jury selection, with a 2015 study finding that prosecutors struck black jurors at more than triple the rate of other jurors. Data from 22 felony trials prosecuted by Cox showed he had struck black jurors at a rate 2.7 times higher than other jurors. Cox attracted national criticism for questionable comments and practices and his perceived overzealous pursuit of the death penalty. He personally prosecuted 1/3 of all the cases in which Louisiana juries returned death sentences between 2010-2015, and wrote an internal memo on the Crawford case in 2014 stating that Crawford "deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies." In 2015, he told The Shreveport Times that he believed the state needs to "kill more people." Caddo Parish is among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for a majority of death-row inmates, and had a death sentencing rate per homicide eight times higher than the rest of the state of Louisiana from 2006 to 2015. Ben Cohen, an attorney for Crawford, said, "This case has always been about injustice and the disproportionate use of the death penalty in Caddo Parish. In deciding not to retry Rodricus Crawford, the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office is righting this injustice, restoring integrity to their office."
In legal challenges filed separately by Arkansas death-row prisoners and a company involved in the distribution of pharmaceuticals, the Arkansas state and federal courts issued preliminary injunctions putting on hold the state's plan to carry out an unprecedented eight executions in the span of eleven days. After a four-day evidentiary hearing that ended late in the evening on Thursday, April 13, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas issued a preliminary injunction barring Arkansas from carrying out the eight scheduled executions with a three-drug cocktail of midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. The District Court issued its opinion and order early Saturday, April 15, finding "a significant possibility” that the prisoners' challenge to the lethal injection protocol will succeed and that Arkansas' execution plan denies the prisoners meaningful access to counsel and to the courts during the course of the executions themselves. In granting the preliminary injunction, Judge Kristine G. Baker wrote, "The threat of irreparable harm to the plaintiffs is significant: If midazolam does not adequately anesthetize plaintiffs, or if their executions are ‘botched,’ they will suffer severe pain before they die." The ruling came a week after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction granted by an Ohio federal district court barring that state from using midazolam in a three-drug execution process. Arkansas has appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
In another lawsuit filed in state court by McKesson, the company that distributed vecuronium bromide to the Arkansas Department of Corrections, an Arkansas circuit judge issued an order in the late afternoon on Friday, April 14, temporarily blocking the state from using the drug. McKesson had filed a complaint alleging that Arkansas misled them about the intended use of the drug and refused to return it even after being issued a refund. Arkansas appealed the court's order, but after the federal injunction was issued, McKesson asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to vacate the state-court order because it would not be necessary as long as the federal injunction is in place.
Two prisoners separately received individual stays of execution. The Arkansas Supreme Court stayed the execution of Bruce Ward, scheduled for April 17, to allow consideration of his claim that he is incompetent to be executed. A federal district court stayed the execution of Jason McGehee, scheduled for April 27, to comply with the required 30-day public comment period after the Arkansas Parole Board's 6-1 recommendation for clemency. [UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling staying the Arkansas executions based upon its use of midazolam and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the issue. The Arkansas Supreme Court lifted the temporary restraining order against the state's use of medicines obtained from the McKessen Corporation to carry out executions.]