Arkansas execution autopsies don't end debate over drugs

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Arkansas' chief medical examiner says nothing in autopsy reports suggest that four inmates put to death in April suffered while they died. But that won't end the debate over whether the state's three-drug execution is cruel.

The state's chief medical examiner, Dr. Charles Kokes, said in an interview with The Associated Press last week there was nothing in the autopsies' lab reports or from witnesses' accounts to indicate anything went awry during executions of Ledell Lee, Jack Jones Jr., Marcel Williams and Kenneth Williams.

"We're just looking at a number" on the lab report, Kokes said. "What's probably more important is what people who were there witnessed."

Journalists who served as pool reporters said some of the inmates breathed heavily as they died, and Kenneth Williams' movements were described as "lurching, jerking, convulsing and coughing." Kokes said these accounts described typical death throes.

Lab work on the inmates' bodies looked only for the sedative, midazolam, not the other two drugs, vecuronium bromide, which is meant to paralyze the inmate's lungs, and potassium chloride, which is meant to stop their hearts.

"It is surprising that they tested only for midazolam," said Scott Braden, a federal public defender who represents death row prisoners.

Alarmed by Kenneth Williams' final movements, he and other lawyers asked a federal judge to order the preservation of blood and tissue samples for testing by their own expert at a later date. She agreed. He said the additional tests have not been performed.

"I'm sure the medical examiner did the best he could and the person we've retained is very good at what he does," Braden said. "The stuff that is debatable is something for the court to decide."

Ahead of the April executions, lawyers for eight inmates who had been set to die argued that midazolam couldn't keep the inmates from sensing that their lungs and hearts were shutting down.

Braden complained that the state didn't provide timetables of when each drug was administered, and that having such a timetable could allow witnesses to determine whether there was a reaction to a new drug being administered.

Kokes said it is rare for autopsies to check for the presence of vecuronium bromide, which is used during surgery to keep a patient's diaphragm from moving. Also, because cells release stored potassium when they break down after death, it is impractical to test for potassium concentrations, Kokes said. Midazolam levels were so high it is unlikely the inmates felt anything, he said.

"It was certainly effective in the sense that it transpired the way it was supposed to go," Kokes said.

Arkansas has no additional executions scheduled. According to Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves, the state hasn't had a full set of execution drugs since its supply of midazolam expired April 30.

Since the April executions, inmate Jack Greene has exhausted his appeals but no execution date has been set. Greene was convicted of killing Sidney Burnett in 1991 after being accused of arson. A clemency recommendation is also pending for Jason McGehee, who had been set to die in April. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has until Dec. 1 to make a decision.


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