LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — About two dozen people witness each execution in Arkansas, though the term “witness” is a misnomer. No one among the media or citizen witnesses can see as the inmate is secured to a gurney, watch as medical personnel place intravenous lines or hear what’s happening as the actual execution takes place. If there’s a dispute over what happened, resolution is difficult.
Arkansas has executed three men in the past week, with a fourth one set Thursday night. Here’s a look at the role witnesses play:
IS THE INMATE DEAD?
The Arkansas Department of Correction has conducted executions since 1913, when legislators assigned it a task formerly carried out by counties. According to state law, six to 12 “respectable citizens” must be present to verify the execution occurred. No more than 30 people can view an execution, including up to five members of the victim’s family who can watch via closed-circuit television in a deputy warden’s office.
Under a policy enacted before Arkansas resumed executing prisoners in 1990, two journalists are allowed in — one from a newspaper and one from electronic media. They can only take notes on paper. By tradition, the seats usually go to reporters from the home county of where a killing occurred, but if reporters cannot reach a consensus on who should be a witness the prison conducts a drawing.
A third media seat, designated for The Associated Press, was added in 1997.
Despite requests from the media since the 1990s, the Arkansas prison system does not let citizen witnesses watch guards escort the inmate to the death chamber or watch the placement of intravenous lines. Prison officials say the execution doesn’t begin until after the inmate delivers a final statement.
This can result in wildly varying accounts of what happens behind the black curtain that separates the witness room from the execution chamber. In Monday’s first execution, for instance, lawyers for Jack Jones said medical technicians took 45 minutes to find a way to deliver lethal drugs. A document issued by the Department of Correction after Jones’ death said it took eight minutes to place intravenous lines.
Lawyers and other witnesses differed on what was happening to Jones after a death chamber microphone was turned off. One lawyer filed a federal court claim saying the inmate was “gulping” for air and that a second execution Monday shouldn’t go forward. A judge ruled against him. The state prison system says the microphone is open for key moments — the inmate’s last statement and a coroner pronouncing the inmate dead.
A lawyer for some of the inmates said Wednesday that it would be good to track the various stages of the execution.
“We don’t know what the inmate is actually feeling. We don’t know when the drugs are being administered,” said Scott Braden of the federal public defenders office in Little Rock.
WHO’S WHO IN THE CHAMBER?
Medical technicians who place intravenous lines toil in anonymity, as the state Legislature intends. So, too, do the guards who serve as an escort team between the inmates’ holding cells and the death chamber.
Once the death chamber curtain opens, and until the inmate is dead, the only people in plain view are the inmate, prison director Wendy Kelley, an attendant who monitors the inmate for consciousness and, at the end, the local coroner.
In the witness room, opposite a glass wall, sit the citizen witnesses, the three reporters and, often, the inmate’s lawyers and spiritual advisers. They are told not to talk to each other, either while waiting or during the execution itself. A guard stands nearby.
During a two-hour delay Monday while a federal judge considered a stay for Marcel Williams, witnesses were able to stand to stretch their legs but did not mingle and talk.
For Jack Jones’ execution, the first one Monday, the media witnesses were in the room less than two minutes before the execution started.
The state released the names of the citizen witnesses a day after each execution.
Follow Kelly P. Kissel on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kisselAP and go to http://bigstory/author/kelly-p-kissel to see his work.
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