The state of Arkansas had a plan in place to kill eight men over 10 days, at some points killing two men in one day, in order to beat the clock on an expiring lethal-injection-drug supply. No inmate had been killed in the state for over a decade, and no double execution had been done in the United States since 2000.
Kenneth Williams was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m. Thursday, and the state completed just half of the executions it set out to do from the beginning. Four men were put to death over seven days, even as questions about the drugs used for the lethal injections, the mental fitness of those being put to death and the handling of the legal cases of those condemned to die swirled around the country, begging the question, is this justice or state-sanctioned revenge?
Williams was scheduled to be killed at 7 p.m. CT, but a spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office said that the state would not commence the lethal-injection process until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on all the challenges before it. SCOTUS declined to stay the execution, and the state began administering the lethal injection at 10:52 p.m.
Williams was put to death even as the daughter of one of his victims asked the governor of Arkansas to spare his life.
In 1999, Williams was convicted of killing 19-year-old Dominique Hurd, a University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, cheerleader. He was sentenced to life without parole and was in prison for less than a month in October 1999 when he escaped the Cummins Unit by hiding in a hog-slop truck. He made his way to the farm of 57-year-old Cecil Boren, just 4 miles away. He shot and killed Boren, changed into his clothes, stole his truck and drove to Missouri.
In Missouri, Williams led police on a high-speed chase during which he crashed into another vehicle and killed 24-year-old delivery driver Michael Greenwood.
Williams was convicted of the murder of Boren and sentenced to death.
The Fair Punishment Project looked into Williams’ background and made some interesting discoveries:
Kenneth Williams, who was just twenty years old at the time of his crime, has a full-scale IQ score of 70, which is squarely within the intellectual disability range. He also has a history of severe “learning disabilities” and “neuropsychological problems,” and he started failing and repeating grades by the time he turned nine.
There is also evidence that Kenneth may have suffered brain damage. He experienced “significant head injuries,” and during a neuropsychological examination, he exhibited mild stuttering, a mild tremor, and showed deficient motor speed and fine motor speed. He had “memory problems, problems focusing attention, deficiencies of judgment and reasoning, problems with reading comprehension, problems with comprehending oral instructions and problems with mental flexibility, which is the ability to shift from one task to another.” One expert put it plainly: “His brain is not working the way it should.”
Kenneth also experienced unimaginable trauma as he shuffled between six different foster homes as a child. He lived in “rat and roach infested” homes, and his family’s “extreme economic deprivation” meant that their utilities were shut off repeatedly and they often lacked adequate food to eat. Moreover, his parents both were substance abusers. His father drank and smoked crack cocaine and his mother used marijuana.
Kenneth witnessed and experienced serious physical abuse. Kenneth’s father once kidnapped his mother and held her at gunpoint for several days. He also regularly “cuss[ed] her and slapp[ed] her, pushing her and hitting her with his fist. He would body slam her on the ground and choke her until she would strangle and gag. On one occasion, he cut her across the stomach with a broken bottle.” Kenneth’s dad also “routinely whipp[ed] the boys . . . on their buttocks, legs, arms and hands,” leaving “welts and bruises.”
Left to his own devices, Kenneth started smoking marijuana at age six; he started drinking beer at nine. He was first institutionalized in the juvenile correctional system at nine years old. While the expert at trial provided few details, he testified that “institutionalization has some additional traumatic, sexual exposures that are associated with it.”
Fair Punishment filed an amicus brief on behalf of Williams on Thursday, arguing that the death penalty must be reserved for people with the most extreme moral culpability; that Arkansas “exemplifies the endemic inability of states to limit the death penalty to people with the most extreme culpability”; and that the Supreme Court should end the failed experiment with capital punishment.
Jessica Brand, legal director for the Fair Punishment Project, wrote in an op-ed for CNN:
Over the years, the court has periodically provided guidance on the type of person who cannot “be classified among the worst offenders.” The court has barred the death penalty for the intellectually disabled and juvenile defendants, finding that because of their impairments limiting judgment and control, they “do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct.” Justice Anthony Kennedy has written that killing those with reduced moral culpability “violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being.”
After decades, however, it’s clear the court’s attempts to regulate the death penalty have failed, and the eight cases Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson set for rapid execution this month show it. These men are not society’s worst of the worst; rather, they are among our most vulnerable and impaired. Three of the men set to die before the state’s supply of a drug used for lethal injection expires — Jack Jones, Marcell Williams, and Ledell Lee — have already been put to death.
Arkansas is a microcosm of what occurs in the very few remaining places that still utilize the death penalty.
If it “violates” “inherent dignity” to execute men who suffer from an intellectual disability or are juveniles, as Kennedy has said, the same must be true of the searing childhood trauma, intellectual impairments, and mental illnesses these men endured, which undermined their capacity for reasoning and judgment just as severely as an intellectual disability could.
Even with mounting evidence indicating that executing Williams (as well as the other inmates) should get at least a second look before proceeding, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday denied a stay of execution.
In an email to The Root, Brand said, “The Supreme Court often talks about human dignity—in particular, Justice Kennedy. In the last few weeks, heroic lawyers have come to help out on these cases in Arkansas. They uncovered evidence of innocence, intellectual disability, searing trauma, and mental illness, all of which earlier bad lawyering failed to uncover. The Supreme Court has turned a blind eye to this evidence and the institutional failures in Arkansas, and now many of those men are dead. The court violated the dignity of those men, and of the court itself.”
On Thursday, Williams’ attorneys released a letter written to Gov. Hutchinson by Kayla Greenwood, the daughter of Michael Greenwood, who was killed during the high-speed chase Williams led police on in Missouri. In her letter, Greenwood informed the governor that her family was not aware that Williams had requested clemency and that they could have testified at his clemency hearing. She said had they known, they would have shown up and testified on behalf of Williams in order to spare his life.
One of the legal challenges Williams filed to stop his execution Thursday was as a result of Greenwood’s letter. The Supreme Court rejected that challenge.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has maintained that the executions needed to happen because it was important that the victims get the justice they need and deserve.
Rob Smith, executive director of the Fair Punishment Project, told The Root, “Attorney General Leslie Rutledge appears to subscribe to what we refer to in scientific terms as the hypocrite school of crime-survivor advocacy. The views of victims matter when they comport with her own views, but are otherwise irrelevant. This faux victim advocacy demeans the daughter and wife of the man whom Kenneth Williams killed, and it demeans the citizens of Arkansas.”
The state of Arkansas killed four men in just seven days. All four of these men had cases that were problematic from start to finish, yet the state pressed on with its wild mission to outrun an expiring lethal-injection-drug supply.
We must continue to ask ourselves: Was this justice or state-sanctioned revenge?