Arkansas executes inmate, prepares for country’s first back-to-back executions in almost two decades

Days after Arkansas pushed back on legal challenges and carried out its first execution in more than a decade, officials there returned to the execution chamber Monday to carry out one death sentence and planned for a second later in the night.

However, even after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to stop the second execution and it appeared imminent, a federal judge issued a late stay blocking it while she considered claims that the first lethal injection may have been botched.

The back-to-back lethal injections, if both are ultimately carried out, would be the country’s first double execution since 2000, when Texas executed two convicted murderers, and the first time a state has attempted to carry out two death sentences in one night since a widely publicized botch in Oklahoma in 2014.

Arkansas hoped this month to resume executions by carrying out eight death sentences in 11 days, an unprecedented schedule that has been thwarted by court orders blocking half of those lethal injections.

[Arkansas executed one death-row inmate. Three more executions are planned this month.]

Jack H. Jones Jr. and Marcel W. Williams, both of whom have been on Arkansas death row since being convicted of brutal murders two decades ago, sought to delay their lethal injections, scheduled to take place in a state prison southeast of Little Rock.

Both men appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday seeking stays of execution, but the justices declined both requests Monday evening.

The Supreme Court first denied Jones’s request about an hour before the executions were set to begin at 7 p.m. Monday in Arkansas. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who is assigned cases from the federal circuit covering Arkansas, referred the request to the full court, which denied it without explanation; Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only member of the court to register a dissent.

Jones was pronounced dead at 7:20 p.m., 14 minutes after his lethal injection got underway, according to the Associated Press, which had a reporter serve as a media witness.

Williams’s appeal was still pending when Jones’s execution ended, but not long after, the justices denied the stay request. Again, no explanation was given and Sotomayor was the only justice to note a dissent.

The Supreme Court’s decision to reject Williams’s requests meant that the second execution could seemingly proceed as planned, but that was quickly cast into doubt after a federal judge issued a temporary stay later Monday night.

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued the order — staying the execution until 8:30 p.m. local time or further court order, “whichever is later” — after attorneys for Williams filed a motion seeking a stay, arguing that Jones’s “execution appeared to be torturous and inhumane.”

Noting that the two men share similar medical issues, the attorneys say that corrections staff struggled to insert a central line into Jones’s neck. They also said that corrections officials did not wait five minutes, as required by the execution policy, after the injection began to check and make sure Jones was unconscious after the sedative was administered. They also alleged that Jones was still “moving his lips and gulping for air” after five minutes had elapsed. (One media witnesssays Jones’s “lips did move, but only very briefly at the very start of the process.”)

Under the Arkansas lethal-injection protocol, state officials must check to make sure inmates are unconscious at least five minutes after the sedative is injected. If they remain conscious, officials are then directed to inject a second dose of the sedative.

Williams’s attorneys say in their filing that he did not agree to have a central line inserted, and warned that his execution could be “even more torturous” than Jones’s.

State officials quickly filed a short response pushing back on these claims, calling them “inaccurate” and “utterly baseless.”

“The claim that Jones was moving his lips and gulping for air is unsupported by press accounts or the accounts of other witnesses,” the Arkansas response stated. “The drugs were administered to Jones at 7:06 p.m. and he was pronounced dead at 7:20 p.m. There was no constitutional violation in Jones’ execution.”

The judge’s order left the status of the execution in doubt.

After Jones was executed, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) — who scheduled the lethal injections and did not issue a statement following the execution last week — said “the rule of law was upheld” Monday night. He noted that Jones’s death sentence was carried out two decades after it was handed down.

“The victim’s family has waited patiently for justice during that time,” he said in a statement. “The jury sentenced Jack Jones to death, and his sentence was upheld by judges and reviewed thoroughly in courts of appeal at each level.”

The lethal injections in Arkansas were planned as part of a schedule that would have been without parallel in modern capital punishment. Hutchinson set eight executions to occur in pairs — back-to-back on four nights spread out over last week and this week — and while most executions occur with little public notice, the timetable in Arkansas drew unusual attention and some criticism.

Attorneys for the inmates filed a volley of appeals seeking to delay the executions, while two dozen former corrections officials wrote a letter to Hutchinson asking him to reconsider the schedule. They warned that the schedule was “needlessly exacerbating the strain and stress placed on” the people carrying it out and saying the timetable could “increase the chance of an error occurring.”

Why is Arkansas rushing to execute people? 

Arkansas officials have defended this schedule as necessary because their stock of midazolam, a common sedative that has provoked controversyafter some executions and is one of three products used in the state’s executions, expires at the end of April. Due to an ongoing shortage of lethal injection drugs, Arkansas authorities say they are not sure if more can be obtained. Leslie Rutledge (R), the state’s attorney general, pledged to fight attempts to delay the remaining executions, saying that “families have waited far too long to see justice.”

As the execution dates approached, both sides engaged in a multifaceted legal battle, with death-row inmates and Arkansas officials appealing to state and federal courts. Drug companies also weighed in, unsuccessfully asking judges to prevent the state from using their products, which at least one company suggested was obtained through dishonest means.

Death-row inmates in Arkansas also appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court as a group, but those requests have been rebuffed, most recently Monday, when the high court denied a request to rehear a case from Arkansas inmates that the justices had already denied. No explanations were given, though Justice Sotomayor said she would have granted the petitions in that case.

Last week, the Arkansas Supreme Court blocked the first two executions on the schedule. One of two executions planned for last Thursday also was stayed, while the U.S. Supreme Court denied a late stay request and allowed another that same night to go forward. Another execution is also planned for Thursday night, while a second originally set that night was stayed this month by a federal judge.

[Arkansas carries out first execution since 2005 after Supreme Court denies stay requests]

While two executions per night had been the original plan in Arkansas, if Jones and Williams are executed as scheduled, Monday would be the only day this month with a back-to-back execution in the state.

Death-row inmates Jack Jones, left, and Marcel Williams. (Arkansas Department of Correction via AP)

Jones, 52, was sentenced to death in 1996 for raping and killing Mary Phillips. According to court records, Jones stalked and killed Phillips, a bookkeeper, and before killing her, he beat her 11-year-old daughter so severely that police thought she was dead when they got to the scene.

Jones’s attorneys have argued in court that he has medical conditions that could result in the Arkansas execution method causing him severe pain, according to court records. In a filing, his attorneys said Jones has diabetes, hypertension and several other conditions that cause him to be on medication that could bring intense or painful suffering because of a possible tolerance to the sedative used in the lethal injection.

State officials argue that Jones’s challenge involves “guesswork” about the sedative and “is no different than the many lethal-injection challenges” he has filed before. Baker, the federal judge, denied that motion Friday, saying Jones’s case did not show “a significant possibility” that the lethal injection process could cause that pain and suffering.

After Jones was executed, Rutledge, the attorney general, released a statement saying she hoped this helped Phillips’s family.

“This evening, Lacey Phillips Manor and Darla Phillips Jones have seen justice for the brutal rape and murder of their mother, Mary Phillips,” Rutledge said in a statement. After detailing the case, Rutledge added: “The Phillips family has waited far too long to see justice carried out, and I pray they find peace tonight.”

[Arkansas had shifted its focus to remaining executions after court losses]

Williams, 46, was sentenced to death in 1997 for abducting, robbing, raping and killing Stacy Errickson, who was 22 and was living at the Little Rock Air Force Base while her husband was serving overseas. Arkansas officials, in court filings opposing a stay in his case, said he forced her at gunpoint to take cash from ATMs before raping, beating and strangling her.

Attorneys for Williams have argued in court filings that he had poor counsel during his trial in both his guilt and penalty phases, which they said meant he was sentenced to death despite the jury not hearing any mitigating evidence arguing against the death penalty.

In another filing, they pointed to health issues, saying he weighs 400 pounds and suffers from several medical maladies that meant the planned lethal injection “was more likely to maim than kill him.” His attorneys argued for stays on both counts, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit rejected both requests on Friday.

The Arkansas Supreme Court also rejected stay requests from both men.

[Arkansas courts had briefly blocked the use of a lethal injection drug]

The 8th Circuit, which had denied an appeal filed by the eight inmates facing execution that challenged the Arkansas method of execution, also denied another challenge Friday that was filed by some of the inmates — including Williams, but not Jones — and focused on the state’s clemency procedures.

The planned double execution would be the country’s first since August 2000. Texas was in the midst of carrying out 40 death sentences that year, the most for any state in a single year since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. (Executions nationwide have fallen since that time, and last year, 20 death sentences were carried out nationwide.)

Before the double execution in 2000, the first inmate’s last words were an admonition against racism targeting black people, according to records kept by Texas corrections officials. He then said, “Let’s do it.” The second inmate apologized to his victim and his family before saying, “I am ready. I love you all.”

[Drug companies take aim at Arkansas executions and demand lethal injection drugs back]

Arkansas is not the first state to plan a double execution since then. Perhaps the most highly publicized botched lethal injection in recent memoryoccurred the last time a state tried carrying out two executions in one night.

In 2014, Oklahoma authorities attempted to execute Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer, in the first of two lethal injections planned that night. They bungled the process: Lockettwrithed and grimaced on the gurney, prompting the execution to be called off, and he died 43 minutes after it began. (The second execution scheduled for that night was delayed; when it was carried out months later, Oklahoma officials used the wrong lethal injection drug. The state has yet to resume executions.)

Officials in Oklahoma later blamed that bungled execution on a misplaced IV. In a state review, officials involved in the process said the back-to-back scheduling added to the stress they felt.

The lethal injections planned Monday come just four days after Arkansas resumed executions, carrying out the death sentence for Ledell Lee after the Supreme Court declined stay requests.

NoneArkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who had defended the scheduled executions in court, spoke at the Republican National Convention last year. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

What unfolded during Lee’s lethal injection provides a glimpse of what other inmates facing execution could experience in Arkansas. Lee’s execution was witnessed by 21 people, not including staffers involved in carrying it out, according to the Arkansas Department of Correction.

Authorities in Arkansas have released new details about Lee’s final hours, beginning with a nine-minute shower he took at 2:23 p.m. For his last meal, Lee took communion and had a regular tray of food, according to an internal log provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction.

Lee was dressed in “clean whites” at 6:18 p.m., at which time legal appeals and orders were still pending in federal court. He was brought to the execution chamber at 11:21 p.m. and restrained, a process that took five minutes.

At 11:27 p.m., moments after the Supreme Court denied Lee’s stay requests, officials in Arkansas began inserting the intravenous catheters that deliver lethal drugs. That took until 11:39 p.m., at which point witnesses began to enter the viewing room, which had its doors locked at 11:42 p.m.

NoneThe Arkansas Department of Correction’s Cummins Unit prison, where executions are carried out. (Kelly P. Kissel/AP)

The curtains to the viewing room opened at 11:44 p.m. Lee was asked for his last words, but he declined to give any, so the execution got underway with the first injection beginning at 11:45 p.m.

At 11:54 p.m., officials logged an “absence of respiration and pulse.” The coroner was summoned, and at 11:56 p.m., pronounced Lee dead. The curtains to the viewing room were closed, and witnesses left the room at midnight, with Lee’s body being removed at 12:10 a.m. A reporter in the area saw a hearse leaving the prison grounds not long after.

On Friday, the day after the execution, Lee was discharged by the Arkansas Department of Correction “due to death by Lethal Injection,” Wendy Kelley, the corrections director, wrote in a letter to a circuit court clerk.