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Contrasting accounts of Arkansas execution from witnesses

FILE - This combination of undated file photos provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction shows death-row inmates Jack Jones, left, and Marcel Williams. The two Arkansas inmates scheduled to be put to death Monday, April 24, 2017, in what could be the nation's first double execution in more than 16 years have asked an appeals court to halt their lethal injections because of poor health. (Arkansas Department of Correction via AP, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — As a condemned killer lay on a gurney awaiting lethal injection in Arkansas’ death chamber, a federal judge had to decide whether there was sufficient evidence that an inmate executed earlier that evening showed signs that he was suffering while he was put to death.

The judge ultimately allowed the second execution to go ahead after a hastily arranged 20-minute hearing by phone, marking the nation’s first double execution on one day in nearly 17 years, but the widely varying witness accounts of the first execution illustrate the risks that have made efforts to put more than one inmate to death in a day so rare.

Those questions loom as Arkansas prepares to put another inmate to death Thursday under what originally was an unprecedented plan to execute eight men over an 11-day period.

“Now you’ve got to turn around in 48 hours or so and see if you can figure out whether it actually worked right before Thursday’s execution,” said John Blume, director of the Death Penalty Project at Cornell Law School. “I think it’s just really an almost impossible test.”

The last-minute wrangling focused on the execution of Jack Jones’ execution, the first inmate put to death Monday night.

An Associated Press reporter who witnessed Jones’ 14-minute execution saw him move his lips for about a minute after he completed his final words. With the microphone in the death chamber turned off, it was unclear whether Jones was speaking. Attorneys for Marcel Williams, who was executed after Jones, said that Jones was moving his lips and gulping for air about five minutes into his execution. Williams’ attorneys argued that the execution appeared to be “torturous and inhumane.”

Jeff Rosenzweig, Jones’ attorney, said in addition to Jones’ lips moving after the statement he saw the inmate’s mouth move five minutes into the execution three to five times.

“There was maybe 10-15 seconds between each one,” Rosenzweig said. “There wasn’t any movement other than that.”

Republican Rep. Kim Hammer, who witnessed both executions Monday night, said he did not see Jones gasp or gulp for air. Hammer said he saw the inmate moving his lips for about 30 to 45 seconds as though he were speaking after he delivered his final words.

“After last night’s experience, I saw nothing that was inhumane that would have caused me to change my mind” about the death penalty, said Hammer, who supports capital punishment.

A state prison spokesman said Jones was speaking to state Correction Department Director Wendy Kelley when his lips moved, but did not know if a transcript was available. The state does not record audio or video of its executions.

According to a log of the execution released by the state Tuesday, it took officials eight minutes to connect Jones to IV lines and 40 minutes to connect Williams. Williams’ attorneys had claimed infirmary staff tried unsuccessfully to place a central line in Jones’ neck for 45 minutes before placing one elsewhere on his body. It was not clear why there was a discrepancy between the state and Williams’ attorneys.

Williams was on the gurney when the stay was issued temporarily halting his execution, and was allowed to return to his cell to use the restroom while the stay was in place. He was not brought back into the chamber until the stay was lifted.

Monday marked the first double execution in the U.S. since 2000, and the questions surrounding Jones’ execution shows why they’ve become rare, experts say. Jones’ execution provided attorneys an argument for halting Williams’ execution, but also gave them a very narrow window to argue for sparing their client’s life.

“If there was one execution and witnesses had these observations there would have been time for the lawyers and experts to evaluate it and time for the court to consider it,” said Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender who witnessed Joseph Rudolph Wood’s slow death in a lethal injection in 2014 in Arizona that involved midazolam, a drug Arkansas has used in its three executions over the past week.

It’s unclear whether the concerns over Jones’ execution could pose challenges for the state’s plan to execute Kenneth Williams on Thursday night. The inmate’s attorneys have several challenges pending in state and federal court, but none so far have focused on claims the execution would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Shortly after Monday’s execution, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office said the governor did not have any concerns about moving forward with Thursday’s execution.

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Associated Press Writer Kelly P. Kissel contributed to this report

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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