Catholic leaders decry fourth Arkansas execution in eight days

Sister Helen Prejean at the Vatican in 2016. (CNS file/Paul Haring)

Sister Helen Prejean at the Vatican in 2016. (CNS file/Paul Haring)

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

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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