Arkansas Justice: Racism, Torture, and a Botched Execution

Six months after the horrifying execution of Kenneth Williams, Arkansas refuses to learn from its mistakes.

Row crops are seen in front of the Cummins Unit where the Arkansas death chamber is housed near Gould, Arkansas. In April four inmates were executed in eight days at the facility before a drug used in the lethal injection process expired. (Photo by Brandon Dill for The Intercept)
Row crops are seen in front of the Cummins Unit where the Arkansas death chamber is housed near Gould, Arkansas. Photo: Brandon Dill for The Intercept

Just over six months have passed since the disturbing execution of Kenneth Williams, but as far as the state of Arkansas is concerned, it might as well be ancient history. No sooner did media witnesses return to the press room on the night of April 27 to describe how Williams coughed and convulsed on the gurney than officials acted like nothing had happened. Never mind the veteran reporter who said it was unlike any execution he had ever seen. Gov. Asa Hutchinson dismissed calls for an investigation. “My goal was to make sure that we had justice in Arkansas in a way that reflected well on the state,” he said the next day, “and I think that was accomplished.”

In reality, the apparently botched execution was the culmination of an ugly ordeal that had put Arkansas at the center of international controversy for weeks. Hutchinson had originally scheduled execution dates for eight men to take place over 11 days last spring, in a rush to use drugs set to expire at the end of April. The plan sparked chaos, with defense attorneys scrambling to write clemency petitions, state lawyers beating back legal challenges, and prison staff preparing to try out a questionable sedative, midazolam, never previously used in Arkansas. The drug has been linked to several executions gone awry, and many observers warned something was bound to go wrong. Of the four executions that proceeded, Williams’s fulfilled the worst predictions. One attorney called it “horrifying.”

Yet there has been no reckoning; no meaningful look at how the drugs were administered or whether Williams was tortured to death. Shielded by the state’s secrecy law, there has been no sanction for state officials who were willing to buy drugs by any means necessary, including by misleading drug manufacturers who did not wish their products to be used to kill. In fact, just this week Arkansas was poised to execute another man, Jack Gordon Greene, until his execution was stayed by the Arkansas Supreme Court over concerns about his severe mental illness.

Today, the only public official held accountable for any potential misconduct during the state’s execution spree is a man who stood briefly in the way. Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen issued a temporary restraining order after a pharmaceutical corporation sued the Arkansas Department of Correction, charging officials with buying drugs under false pretenses and then refusing to return them. That same day, Griffen, a Baptist minister, took part in a dramatic Good Friday protest outside the governor’s mansion, playing the condemned in a mock execution. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge cried foul – and the consequences were swift: The Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a disciplinary review and announced it would reassign all of Griffen’s death penalty cases. In a special session, state legislators voted to implement rules that would allow for his impeachment.

Griffen defended himself, citing his First Amendment rights. But his fight with what he calls Arkansas’s “white power structure” has exposed a deeper divide. “In the history of Arkansas, no white member of the Arkansas judiciary has ever been summarily banned from hearing an entire category of cases based on his or her exercise of the First Amendment protected freedoms of speech, peaceful assembly, religion, and exercise of religion,” Griffen argues in a lawsuit filed against the Arkansas Supreme Court last month. He cites “multiple white judges in Arkansas who admitted to engaging in criminal behavior have been treated more favorably.”

Among them is a judge who led police officers on a high-speed chase after blowing through a sobriety checkpoint. That man pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated, on same day Griffen took part in the demonstration in Little Rock. The white judge will go back to presiding over DWI cases next month. “African-American Judge Griffen, on the other hand, is barred for life from presiding over any cases involving the death penalty,” his lawsuit argues.

Racism has always helped decide who gets punished in Arkansas, and how.

Griffen is 65 years old, raised by sharecroppers in the rural town of Delight, Arkansas. He may never have become a judge if not for a lawsuit brought in 1989, which exposed how black voters were being disenfranchised from judicial elections, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. In 1991, just as executions were returning to Arkansas, a consent decree forced the state to create new electoral subdistricts. Several black judges would be elected in years to come, among them Griffen, voted onto the bench in 2010.

Griffen is no stranger to controversy. He is outspoken against racism on his blog, sometimes using his sermons to point out ways in which Arkansas has not abandoned the white supremacy of its past, but has reinvented it. He has been open about his moral opposition to the death penalty, while also issuing legal rulings against people facing execution. Griffin argues he is perfectly capable of following the law even when it conflicts with his personal views. Others decry him as an activist judge.

Yet his critics’ own controversies have raised questions about how fairly they approach questions of law and order. Chief among them is Rutledge, who continues to lead the charge to carry out executions. A Donald Trump supporter whose father was the drug czar under former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, she came under criticism a few years ago after sending a shockingly racist email mocking black people in 2014. There were no consequences.

Racism has always helped decide who gets punished in Arkansas, and how. Three black men and one white man died in the Arkansas death house last April. Of all of them, Kenneth Williams undoubtably had the most blood on his hands. But if no one cares to consider how he died, it is also because whitewashing torture has a long tradition in Arkansas prisons. State officials ignored their own grim history in their rush to execute last spring. By absolving itself of wrongdoing, Arkansas continues to repeat it.

Essie Mae Dale-Cableton is the Mayor of Gould, Arkansas. The town is near The Cummins Unit, where the Arkansas death chamber is housed. In April four inmates were executed in eight days at the facility before a drug used in the lethal injection process expired. Dale-Cableton worked as a Corrections Sgt. at the Cummins Unit until her retirement in 2007. (Photo by Brandon Dill for The Intercept)

Gould Mayor Essie Mae Cableton sits in her office in Gould, Ark. Cableton worked as a corrections sergeant at the Cummins Unit until her retirement in 2007.

Photo: Brandon Dill for The Intercept

Mayor Essie Mae Cableton was in her office the day Arkansas killed Kenneth Williams, across from the Dollar General on Highway 65. The city of Gould, population 836, lies on the southern edge of sprawling farmland owned by the Arkansas Department of Correction, in unincorporated parts of Lincoln County. The land is anchored by two maximum-security prisons: the Varner Unit, which houses men on death row, and the Cummins Unit, where they are sent to die.

That morning, 38-year-old Williams waited in a holding cell next to the death chamber just up the road. News vans would soon start arriving to cover his death, scheduled for 7 p.m. It would be the fourth execution at the prison in eight days.

Cableton once worked at the Cummins Unit. Now 76, she was born and raised in Gould during a different era. She remembers picking cotton in the fields alongside her sisters by the time she was six. “We would get like $2.50 or $3 per hundred pounds,” Cableton said. White students passing on school buses sometimes threw things out the window, laughing at “those niggers picking cotton.” After graduating from Gould Colored High School, Cableton worked factory jobs and joined the civil rights movement. She married an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had a field office in town. In one corner of her office, an old photograph shows the safe house where activists met to hide from the Ku Klux Klan.

The Arkansas prison system was built upon “an ancient philosophy of retribution, corruption, exploitation, sadism and brutality.”

Back then, the local penitentiary, known as Cummins Prison Farm, was “a very horrible place,” Cableton said. Neighbors saw men getting whipped in the fields. In the 1969 expose, “Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal,” former prison superintendent Tom Murton described the system as one of modern-day slavery, built upon “an ancient philosophy of retribution, corruption, exploitation, sadism and brutality.” Rather than pay civilian guards, the state relied on armed “trusties,” who violently enforced the state-ordered regimen of hard labor on fellow prisoners. Men were towed to the fields like cattle, harvesting crops under close supervision. Many compared it to a Nazi concentration camp.

Whippings were routine and legal in those years – and torture was an open secret. Especially notorious was an instrument called the “Tucker Telephone,” facilitated by so-called prison doctors at a penitentiary of the same name. As Murton described it, “An undressed inmate was strapped to the treatment table at Tucker Hospital while electrodes were attached to his big toe and to his penis. The crank was then turned, sending an electrical charge into his body. In ‘long distance calls,’ several charges were inflicted – of a duration designed to stop just short of the inmate’s fainting.”

The brutality in Arkansas prisons made national headlines following a police probe in 1966. A handful of firings followed, but many politicians dismissed the revelations. “Ninety-five per cent of the complaints of convicts are lies,” said one lawmaker, a former chair of the penitentiary board. Another simply declared: “Arkansas has the best prison system in the United States.” After Murton discovered three skeletons buried at Cummins – proof of longtime rumors that some “escapees” had actually been murdered – evidence and press witnesses who saw the exhuming were whitewashed by a state investigation. Murton was pushed out. One state senator called for him to be censured for digging up the bodies in the first place.


A field lieutenant with prisoners picking cotton at Cummins Prison Farm in 1975.

Photo: Bruce Jackson

In 1970, a federal judge declared the whole Arkansas prison system unconstitutional, deeming it a “dark and evil world.” By the time Cableton took a job as a guard 30 years later, the system had been totally overhauled. The Tucker Telephone was moved to a museum. Still, at the Cummins Unit, she could see the “circle in the floor where the whipping block used to be.”

If torture was officially a thing of the past, a harsh new form of punishment had been introduced in the meantime. In 1990, after more than 25 years without an execution in Arkansas, Gov. Bill Clinton ushered in a wave of new executions, replacing the electric chair with lethal injection. It was ostensibly a more humane method of killing, overseen by medical personnel. But the first execution, of Ronald Gene Simmons, was harrowing; witnesses saw him cough and heave, shaking the gurney. Two years later, while on the campaign trail, Clinton himself famously witnessed the execution of brain-damaged Ricky Ray Rector, who died a similarly disturbing death.

These executions took place before Cableton’s time at Cummins. But she remembers the 1995 execution of Barry Lee Fairchild, a black man with mental disabilities who had been railroaded by a racist sheriff for a crime he swore he did not commit. “It still bothers me,” Cableton said, “because I’m wondering was an innocent man put to death?”

As a member of Cummins’s Emergency Response Team, Cableton provided security on execution nights. “At that time to me, it was just part of the job,” she said. Still, the job had always been a last resort. She grew tired of the overnight shifts and “John Wayne-type” supervisors, who reminded her of the men who cursed at her when she was a child working in their fields. “I told them it was time I come out of Egypt,” she said. “I can’t stand for a man now to tell me what to do.” In 2007, at age 65, Cableton left Cummins. She went back to school and got a degree in criminal justice. In 2015, she ran for mayor. She won by five votes.

That same year, Hutchinson signed a new lethal injection protocol into law. Cableton’s perspective on the death penalty had evolved. “I’ve come to be a little more sympathetic and compassionate,” she said. As Rutledge deployed dozens of lawyers to work over Easter weekend to push through Hutchinson’s execution plans earlier this year, Cableton questioned the governor’s priorities. He had yet to visit her corner of the Arkansas Delta – and Cableton had yet to secure funding to fix the partially caved-in roof of the town hall building where she works. “If those are our taxpayers’ dollars out there, why is it so difficult to get it to do the things that we need to do down in this end of Arkansas?”

As the executions proceeded, other questions were hard to avoid. On April 20, two black men were scheduled to die back-to-back. Both insisted they were innocent – and both had disastrous defense representation at trial. “I didn’t even want to watch the news,” Cableton said. “I really didn’t. I called my sister and I asked her, ‘Have they executed those two?’” The next morning, she learned that one execution had gone through while the other had been stayed.

It seemed to be arbitrary, who lived and who died. But as the execution dates came and went, Cableton was not surprised that the single recommendation for clemency went to a white man, or that the two black men put to death so far had been convicted of crimes against white women. It was a story she knew too well, a lesson that went back to the murder of Emmitt Till. “That’s something I’ve been mad about all my life,” she said.

A sign marks the entrance to the Cummins Unit where the Arkansas death chamber is housed near Gould, Arkansas. In April four inmates were executed in eight days at the facility before a drug used in the lethal injection process expired. (Photo by Brandon Dill for The Intercept)

A sign marks the entrance to the Cummins Unit where the Arkansas death chamber is housed near Gould, Ark.

Photo: Brandon Dill for The Intercept

At 5 p.m. on April 27, reporters settled into the media room at the Cummins Unit. The prison had provided pastries and chocolate frosted cookies, along with fruit punch and sugary coffee, flavored with cinnamon. Media packets featured corrections department’s slogan: “Honor and integrity in public service.”

Reporters also received a list of everyone executed in Arkansas since 1913. Kenneth Williams would be the 200th — and the 140th black man killed by the state. But he was unusual in one sense. His would be only the third execution ever to come out of small, rural Lincoln County. The first was a black man named Fred Pelton, who had killed someone following an escape from Cummins, after going to prison in the late 1800s for the attempted rape of five white women in Little Rock, a crime he swore he did not commit. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette praised police for avoiding a lynching of the “negro brute,” but he was executed in 1914. Then there was Revertia Reynolds, killed in 1921 for murdering a black man. His execution was notable for being witnessed by the daughter of a local businessman. The headline in the Arkansas Gazette was “Young Woman Sees Negro Go to Death.”

Kenneth Williams arrived at Cummins in 1998. Sentenced to life for abducting and killing a 19-year-old college student, he escaped the next year, climbing into a vat of hog slop being towed from the prison. He broke into the home of a local farmer named Cecil Boren, shooting him in the head with his own gun. After driving some 300 miles to Missouri, Williams crashed Boren’s truck, killing a 24-year-old man. Later, from death row, Williams wrote a letter confessing to yet another murder.

Members of Boren’s family were at the prison that night. Like many in Lincoln County, their lives were intertwined with the Cummins Unit. Boren and his relatives had worked at the prison during some of its most volatile times. After the barracks were forcibly integrated in the spring of 1970, Boren was among those tasked with handling the unrest. Excerpts from local news reports in the 1977 book “Killing Time” included a quote from Boren, who warned that the black prisoners were intent on “burning this place down.” His cousin David would later testify that he had been ordered by a field supervisor to fatally shoot a black prisoner, but refused. David said he had “seen inmates assaulted by guards, beaten in the stomach and personally had falsified disciplinary records of inmates to prolong their sentences in isolation cells.”

As Williams went to trial in 2000 for killing Boren. It was hard to find an impartial jury in Lincoln County. Many prospective jurors “either work at the prison or are related to someone who works there, or know Boren’s family,” the AP reported at the time. As the execution neared 17 years later, the local coroner spoke to the New York Times. “What I’ve heard nonstop in this community — this entire community — is: ‘This is the one we’re waiting on.’”

A scene from Gould, Arkansas near the Cummins Unit where the Arkansas death chamber is housed. In April four inmates were executed in eight days at the facility before a drug used in the lethal injection process expired. (Photo by Brandon Dill for The Intercept)

A scene from Gould, Ark., near the Cummins Unit where the state’s death chamber is housed.

Photo: Brandon Dill for The Intercept

At 5:30 sharp, Arkansas Department of Correction spokesperson Solomon Graves welcomed reporters. A black man wearing a pink tie and a gray suit coat, Graves reported that Kenneth Williams had refused a last meal, choosing instead to take communion. Then he listed the food Williams had been given anyway: “two pieces of fried chicken, barbecue beans, sweet rice, whole kernel corn, stewed seasoned tomatoes, two cinnamon rolls, two cookies, four slices of bread, and fruit punch.”

A reporter asked Graves to repeat what came after the sweet rice. Another asked whether Williams “ate the whole tray.” An internal affairs log would later detail precisely how much food Williams consumed: “all of the chicken, 1 peanut butter cookie, half of the sweet rice, 1 slice of bread, and half cup of the BBQ beans.”

The atmosphere in the media room was one of collective tedium, peppered with small talk, gossip, and some laughter. Reporters covering the executions had spent long, late hours at the prison, waiting out last-minute legal challenges. Officials came prepared for a long night, armed with candy and a Lays variety pack. A chatty woman in a red blazer brought sudoku, sighing that she had hardly slept for the past two weeks.

Reporters checked email and Twitter for the latest legal filings. Attorneys for Williams pointed to his low IQ and abusive childhood as reasons he should be spared. Separately, a story had gone viral about Michael Greenwood, the driver killed in the crash caused by Williams after his escape from Cummins. Greenwood’s daughter, Kayla, had written to Hutchinson, asking him to spare Williams. She had discovered he had a daughter her own age who could not afford to come see her father before he died. Her family bought a flight for her, picked her up at the airport, and took her to the prison. “If Mr. Williams is executed, her loss, her pain, will be as real as mine,” Kayla wrote. The governor did not respond.

At 6 p.m., it was time to name the media witnesses. Only three local press representatives are allowed to view executions, representing print, electronic media, and the Associated Press. If reporters do not agree on the representatives, the witnesses must be chosen at random. Reporters hastily wrote their names on slips of paper, which were put in a Tupperware container.

Hours would pass with no new information. J.R. Davis, the official spokesman for Governor Hutchinson, came in and out of the media room, with little to share. At 10:11 p.m., a man in a jacket and tie came and finally asked for the media witnesses. For a few minutes, the room silent. But before long, the chatter started up again.

It was 11:07 when Graves answered his phone in the media room. He scratched his head and wrote something down, hanging up a minute later. Then he addressed the reporters. Williams had been declared dead at 11:05 p.m., he said. Then he added, Williams “did shake for approximately 10 seconds” during the execution. He declined to give further details.

Media witnesses returned looking solemn. One man’s face was red. AP reporter Kelly Kissel quickly got to the heart of the matter. “Coughing, convulsing, lurching, jerking,” he said, reading from their pooled notes. The execution began at 10:52. After the midazolam had been administered, he said, Williams lurched forward 15 times, then another five times, more slowly. It lasted no more than a minute, he said. But after that, Williams gasped, taking labored breaths. “It was clear that he was in trouble,” Kissel said. “It was clear that he was striving for breath.”

Reporters asked what drugs had been administered at that point. The three-drug protocol relies first on an efficacious dose of a sedative – in this case midazolam – to ensure that the effects of the next two drugs do not lead to a tortuous death. Kissel said only midazolam should have been given, but there was really no way to know for sure. No one alerted witnesses to when the other drugs were being injected. Continuing through his notes, Kissel said that, at 10:58, witnesses heard a “moan or a groan” from Williams. After that, he went still, eventually appearing “serene.” He could not tell if Williams had been conscious while he was lurching. Still, of the 10 executions Kissel had witnessed, he had never seen one like this.

The reporters were still asking questions when a different group of witnesses were led into the room. Several looked shaken. The daughter of Cecil Boren took the podium, her voice strained with emotion. She thanked the state of Arkansas for its handling of the execution, saying that any movement by Williams paled in comparison to what her father had suffered. A reporter asked her if her mother had found peace. “Our peace will come later,” she said.

But the last word would belong to J.R. Davis, who took the podium on Hutchinson’s behalf. Davis had not witnessed the execution. He ignored the reporters’ descriptions, announcing that all had gone well. The convulsing was merely an “involuntary muscular reaction,” he said. He reiterated Williams’s crimes and said it was important to concentrate on the families of his victims. Finally, he said, the execution of Williams should bring a renewed faith in its judicial system.

Solomon Graves, right, explains to members of the media the ground rules for selecting media witnesses for the scheduled execution of Kenneth Williams at the Cummins Unit prison at Varner, Ark., Thursday, April 27, 2017. Three media witnesses are allowed. (AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel)

Solomon Graves, right, explains to members of the media the ground rules for selecting media witnesses for the scheduled execution of Kenneth Williams at the Cummins Unit prison in Varner, Ark., on April 27, 2017.

Photo: Kelly P. Kissel/AP

The death of Kenneth Williams marked the last of the planned executions last spring. As the national press left Arkansas, Williams’s lawyer accused the governor and his spokesman as  “trying to whitewash the reality of what happened.” He subpoenaed the state crime lab for autopsy records, toxicology reports, and handwritten notes. In response, the state asked a federal judge to quash the subpoena, arguing that such a request would violate Williams’s privacy rights.

In June, a brief article appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on the autopsy and toxicology reports for the executed men, obtained via Freedom of Information requests. They were not revealing. Yet there was one macabre detail: The autopsy for Jack Jones Jr., executed on April 24, found “tan colored makeup” covering multiple needle marks on his neck – places where the prison staff had repeatedly tried and failed to insert an IV. It was not clear who applied it. But it seemed clear it was meant to make things look a little less ugly.

In August, officials announced they had a new batch of midazolam, after the state medical board quietly voted to end a short-lived probe into the acquisition of its previous execution drugs. The new supply was supposed to be used to kill Jack Greene last week. But two days after his stay, the manufacturer of the drug was revealed to be a company based in New York state. In a statement on its website, the company made clear it “does not want any of our products used in capital punishment.” Whether Arkansas cares is an open question.

Today, a state poll showed that Arkansas residents remain staunch in their support for the death penalty, in contrast to the rest of the country. Governor Hutchinson’s popularity has gone up since last year. As Judge Griffen continues to fight to keep his seat on the bench, members of the Arkansas Supreme Court are now in the political crosshairs themselves. After halting three of the planned executions last spring, the most recent stay has prompted cries of judicial activism.

“It’s just troubling,” one politician said of the barrier to carrying out executions. “I want to know the reason why we’re delaying justice to these families so we can properly move forward.”

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