Fourth and final Arkansas inmate Kenneth Williams executed

Kenneth Williams put to death by lethal injection after appeal to US supreme court fails to secure a stay on his sentence

Kenneth Williams’ attorneys have appealed to US supreme court to stop his execution on grounds of intellectual disability. Photograph: AP

Arkansas has carried out its fourth execution within a week, bringing to a troubling end the state’s controversial attempt to run a “conveyor belt of death” in an aggressive burst of killings unseen in the US for more than half a century.

Kenneth Williams was pronounced dead at 11.05pm local time at the end of a 13-minute lethal injection that resulted in disturbing signs of distress on the part of the prisoner.

Eyewitnesses in the death chamber reported that his whole body shook with 15 or 20 convulsions just minutes into the procedure, and that he continued to breathe heavily even after a paralytic was injected into him to render all movement impossible.

After the killing was completed, the Republican governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, the architect of the state’s controversial schedule of quick-fire executions, proclaimed that “the long path of justice ended tonight. Arkansans can reflect on the last two weeks with confidence that our system of laws in this state has worked”.

But observers were left with anything but confidence in the state’s ability to conduct humane executions as doubts continued to dog the week’s proceedings. Those doubts are certain to deepen after Thursday night’s killing, if the eyewitness accounts are any indication.

The lethal injection began at 10.52pm with the injection of midazolam, a sedative that has a very controversial track record in executions. At the time, Williams was still making a statement, and was speaking in tongues. His voice tailed off as he said: “The words that I speak will forever, forever …”

At about 10.55pm he was reported by media witnesses to be breathing heavily and “gasping”. Then he went into at least 10 seconds of convulsions, in which his body was described as “shaking”, he lurched forwards quickly multiple times, and he moaned and groaned.

Two minutes later, a consciousness check was carried out by rubbing his sternum and lifting his eyelids. Members of the execution team were sufficiently certain that he was unconscious to at that point administer the second drug, vecuronium bromide, that paralyses the muscles and stops all movement.

But according to the witnesses, he was still breathing heavily and he issued a further moan and a groan at 10.59pm – two minutes after the paralytic would have been given.

The governor’s spokesman said after the execution was completed that Williams’ convulsions amounted to “involuntary muscular reaction” brought about by the midazolam. Asked whether he was worried that the heavy breathing had continued after the consciousness check was done, he replied: “No I am not.”

Fears have swirled around the state’s insistence on using midazolam as its first of the…

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