Reflections on Arkansas’s Recent Executions

Last week, Arkansas completed its schedule of executions, four in total out of the eight that were originally planned, which were intended to take place before one of the drugs needed for lethal injection expired at the end of April. A Washington Post article published in the aftermath covers the controversy about complications with two of the executions, the empathy of one of the victim’s families towards one of the men executed, and the public statements of Governor Asa Hutchinson.

The complications with the executions were not significant enough to be publicized widely, but they caused local conflict between attorneys, correctional officers, and the governor. In the executions of Jack H. Jones Jr. as well as Kenneth Williams, minor movements by the men in the early stages of the sedative process caused attorneys to claim that their clients had been unduly harmed and even tortured. In the case of Kenneth Williams, his body, according to an AP reporter who witnessed the execution, “jerked 15 times in quick succession, then the rate slowed for a final five movements.” In the case of Jack Jones, according to his attorneys, Jones during the sedative process was “moving his lips and gulping for air.” In the specific case of Jones, state officials contested his attorneys’ claims, saying that they were exaggerated. Governor Hutchinson challenged the idea that there needed to be a full-fledged investigation into the incidents.

A contrasting storyline presented in the article is that of the family of Michael Greenwood, who was inadvertently killed by Kenneth Williams in a car chase leading to his arrest. Some of Michael’s relatives asked the governor on Thursday to stay his execution, saying that they did not want more suffering in an already bleak history of events. When the governor declined to stay the execution, they paid for Kenneth’s daughter and granddaughter to fly from Seattle to visit him. His granddaughter, only five years old, had never met him. Kayla Greenwood, who was only five years old when her father was killed, said that seeing the visit end broke her heart.

My emotional response reading this article was mostly frustration, not because of my beliefs about capital punishment, but rather because of the contradictions between the words and actions of different parties involved. On one hand there are the apparent mistakes or complications with the executions of two of the Arkansas men, which were met, not with any show of empathy, but rather with legal maneuvers, counter-maneuvers by state officials, and a statement by the governor about how the executions demonstrate that “our system of laws have meaning.” On the other hand, the relatives of one of Kenneth Williams’s victims challenged the execution and paid for his family to visit him. Given that empathy, on the part of those related to murder victims as well as on the part of society at large, sometimes plays an important role in discussions about the ethics of capital punishment, it seems like this whole situation could inform a better understanding of that phenomenon. In the especially emotionally charged case of murder, which is the basis of all capital punishment today, feelings of bitterness, empathy, and apathy conflict, and this can easily lead to the most severe outcome for someone convicted of murder. In this particular case — that of Kenneth Williams — it seems like the punishment was given more for political reasons than anything else, which is unfortunate.

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