Catholic leaders decry fourth Arkansas execution in eight days

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — After Arkansas executed its fourth
death-row inmate in eight days April 27, Sister Helen Prejean, a longtime opponent
of capital punishment, said “future generations will look back upon the
events unfolding in Arkansas tonight with horror. The barbarity is overwhelming.”

Sister
Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, tweeted that message 30
minutes after Kenneth Williams was pronounced dead.

His
lawyers unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay, saying the
inmate should not be executed because three health care professionals had
determined he was “intellectually disabled.” Relatives of a man
killed by Williams in a crash during his 1999 escape from prison also pleaded with
the governor to call off his execution.

“There
is nothing pro-life about the state-sanctioned killing of an intellectually
disabled man,” was just one of the many messages Sister Prejean tweeted during
Williams’ final hours. Catholic Mobilizing Network in Washington, an advocacy
group seeking to end the death penalty, similarly sent Twitter updates the
night of the execution and each of the eight days when other inmates were executed,
including two executions April 24. The social media messages urged people to
pray for those facing execution, their families, the victim’s families and even
the prison guards.

Arkansas
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the multiple executions months ago, saying they
had to be carried out in quick succession in order to use the state’s final batch of midazolam,
a sedative used in lethal injections, before the state’s supply expired at the
end of April. Of the eight men scheduled to be executed, four were granted court-issued
stays of execution.

The
quick succession of the executions prompted many to oppose them,
including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In an April 13 statement,
Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the bishops’ Committee
on Domestic Justice and Human Development, urged Hutchinson to
reconsider reducing the sentences to life
imprisonment.

The
bishop said the timing for the executions “was not set by the demands of
justice, but by the arbitrary politics of punishment,” referring to the
state’s supply of midazolam. “And so, in a dark irony, a safeguard that was
intended to protect people is now being used as a reason to hasten their deaths,”
he said.

Sister
Prejean said opposition to these executions did not go unnoticed. She tweeted
April 27 that the protests “put a spotlight” on the governor and the state
and “awakened the world to what’s happening.”

She
also urged opponents to keep up the fight, telling them to “move from
horror and outrage and sorrow into renewed passion for justice and compassion.”

“It
is vital that now, more than ever, we recommit ourselves to working tirelessly
for life,” she added.

In an
April 28 statement, Sister Prejean said Williams’ execution “did not go
according to plan” because media witnesses reported that the inmate “coughed,
convulsed, lurched and jerked during the lethal injection process.” She
said Hutchinson, who described the execution as “flawless,” should
launch a full investigation into what went wrong.

One of
Williams’ attorneys, Shawn Nolan, requested a full investigation into the
“problematic execution,” saying the accounts of it were “horrifying.”

“This
is very disturbing, but not at all surprising, given the history of the risky
sedative midazolam, which has been used in many botched executions,” he
said in an April 27 statement.

Williams
was sentenced to death in 2000 for fatally shooting a former
deputy warden during his 1999 escape from prison, where he was serving a life
sentence for killing a college cheerleader the previous year.

Media
reports on his final words before he was executed included an apology to the
victims’ families saying his crimes were “senseless, extremely hurtful and
inexcusable. I humbly beg your forgiveness and pray you find the peace, healing
and closure you all deserve.”

“I
am not the same person I was. I have been transformed,” he added. “Some
things can’t be undone. I seek forgiveness.”

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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