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Silence In Execution Chamber Leaves Questions About What Happened

Sarah Whites-Koditschek
Arkansas Public Media

Arkansas executed two men in one night this week, and there is a dispute about how it went. Attorneys for the first man executed Monday, Jack Jones, say he gasped for air as he died. Media witnesses say they simply saw Jones’ lips moving. None of the execution witnesses were allowed to hear Jones’ sounds.

Andrew DeMillo, an Associated Press reporter who witnessed Jones’ execution, reported back to other journalists at the prison that Jones’ lips had moved during the lethal injection process.

“It was after the microphone was off so we don’t know if he was saying something… but it was moving for about… what would you say two minutes. I’m not sure if he was actually saying something or it was just him moving his mouth."

The state turns off the microphone in the death chamber after the inmate is allowed to make a final statement.

When asked why the state doesn’t let execution witnesses hear more, Arkansas Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves said that’s the way it’s always been done in Arkansas.

“The department’s audio processes have been consistent throughout our time with this lethal injection protocol.”

And he said that witnesses hear the only part of the execution that has sound, the inmates’ last words.

Credit Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Members of the press waiting at the Cummins Unit near Grady.

After seeing his lips moving during his death, inmates’ attorneys filed a complaint to stop the second scheduled execution of the night, Marcel Williams.

They said Jones had been gasping for breath, a sign of pain.

A temporary stay was granted for nearly two hours and then dropped. Williams was executed and pronounced dead at 10:33 p.m.

Credit Arkansas Department of Correction
Arkansas Department of Correction
Former inmates Jack Jones and Marcel Williams

Robert Dunham is the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
He says gasping sounds have been a part of reports of botched executions in other states that use midazolam, the controversial drug Arkansas is using for the first time.

He says hearing the execution is as important as seeing it.

 “By deliberately preventing the witnesses from hearing that, Arkansas is taking away the public oversight. They’re making it more difficult to figure out exactly what happened, and then they’re using the absence of that evidence, the absence they created themselves, to argue a mistake didn’t happen.”

It remains unclear whether Jones was speaking or gasping.

Dunham says he thinks blocking the sound fuels controversy and speculation, especially when last minute legal appeals are happening.

 “If there were an audio recording, that could have been available to the court. If the audio was available, then you could have had statements by the press about what it was they heard as well as what it was that they saw. The point is that we would have had much more clarity.”

A spokesman for the governor, J.R. Davis, told reporters there were no problems with the process. He asked the media to focus on the victim’s families, not witnessing policies.

“As far as both executions, I used the word flawlessly earlier, it’s the truth,” he said.

Credit Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Spokesman for Governor Asa Hutchinson, J.R. Davis, and ADC spokesman Solomon Graves (left).

“The governor could not be more pleased with director Kelley and the staff at ADC being able to carry out this responsibility they’ve been tasked with,” he added.  

Arkansas’s final scheduled execution is set for Thursday. The state’s supply of midazolam expires at the end of the month.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

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