Rob Burgess

Arkansas managed to make April a historically grisly month in the state’s history.

As I wrote in my April 19 column, “Courts halt Arkansas’ killing spree,” the state’s supply of lethal injection anesthetic, midazolam, was set to expire Sunday. So, even though it hadn’t carried out one since 2005, the state hastily planned a record-breaking eight executions over 11 days. (Four were blocked by courts.)

As I wrote in my May 7, 2014 column, “Our (lethal injection) drug problem,” America’s supply of deadly Pentothal used in lethal injections was cut off in early 2011 after manufacturer Hospira discontinued production over moral objections. The shortage has led to use of secretive, less reliable ingredients. Jan. 16, 2014, Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire gasped for breath for 25 minutes during his final punishment. April 29, 2014, Oklahoma prisoner Clayton Darrell Lockett died 43 minutes after his botched lethal injection began — from a heart attack.

The horror continued. As I wrote in my July 30, 2014 column, “Let’s put lethal injection to sleep,” the execution of Arizona inmate James Rudolph Wood III July 23, 2014, took nearly two hours and was punctuated by snorting and gasping.

The first victim of Arkansas’ expedited execution schedule was convicted murderer Ledell Lee. His April 18 motion for relief outlined Lee’s fetal alcohol syndrome, significant brain damage and intellectual disability; his continued proclamation of innocence; and the lack of DNA testing of evidence. But the legal proceedings of Lee’s case alone are jaw-dropping.

“Lee was tried by a judge who concealed ... an affair with the assistant prosecutor, to whom the judge was later married. Lee’s first state post-conviction counsel introduced the evidence of the affair by calling the judge’s ex-wife, who testified about the affair after opposing the subpoena. That lawyer, however, was so intoxicated at the hearing that the state moved for him to be drug tested after he slurred, stumbled and made incoherent arguments,” read an April 18 American Civil Liberties Union press release.

Nevertheless, April 20, new Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch cast his first vote on the Supreme Court by joining the 5-4 majority allowing Lee’s execution to move forward.

April 24’s killing of convicted rapist and murderer Jack Jones and convicted kidnapper and murderer Marcel Williams was the nation’s first double execution since 2000, and showed the brutality of the nearly expired drugs. “The infirmary staff tried unsuccessfully to place a central line in Jones’s neck for 45 minutes before placing one elsewhere,” read Williams’ emergency motion filed after Jones’ execution. “Jones was moving his lips and gulping for air.”

A similar scene played out later that night. “[Williams’] breaths became deep and heavy. His back arched off the gurney as he sucked in air,” reported The Arkansas Times’ Jacob Rosenberg. “I could not count the number of times his body moved in such a way, rising off the gurney.”

Finally, Thursday’s execution of convicted murderer Kenneth Williams completed the sickening cycle. Though the family of one of his victims personally asked Gov. Asa Hutchinson for clemency, the execution went ahead, with disgusting results.

“‘This is the most I’ve seen an inmate move three or four minutes in,’ said Associated Press reporter Kelly Kissel, who witnessed his tenth execution Thursday,” reported NBC News’ Phil McCausland on Friday. “Kissel explained that Williams ‘lurched’ 15 times in quick succession, followed by five slower lurches, three minutes after ... midazolam was introduced. Kissel said two other witnesses from local media organizations, Donna Terrell of Fox 16 and Knowles Adkisson of the Pine Bluff Commercial, agreed with his assessment and also said that Williams could be heard after the microphone to the death chamber was turned off.”

Hutchinson said no further investigation will take place. But if this doesn’t violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment,” I’m not sure what would.

Rob Burgess, Tribune city editor, may be reached at 765-454-8577, via email at or on Twitter at

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