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article imageArkansas stages first double execution in US in 17 years

By S├ębastien BLANC (AFP)     Apr 25, 2017 in Crime

The southern state of Arkansas has carried out the first double execution in the United States in nearly 17 years, forging on with a controversial push to execute a string of inmates before a lethal drug expires at the end of the month.

Jack Jones and Marcel Williams, convicted separately of rape and murder in the 1990s, were put to death by lethal injection Monday evening, the state's attorney general Leslie Rutledge announced.

The inmates's lawyers fought for reprieves up to the last minute, but their final appeals were rejected by the courts.

It was the latest episode in a running legal battle over Arkansas's drive to execute eight convicted murderers in 11 days to beat the expiration date on its stock of midazolam, a hard-to-replace sedative used in the lethal injections.

Four inmates have won reprieves, but Jones and Williams were the second and third to be executed and a fourth inmate faces death on Thursday.

The state's first execution in more than a decade was carried out last Thursday when Ledell Lee was put to death.

- Condemnation -

The state's race to execute has been condemned by the European Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even the mother of novelist John Grisham, an Arkansas native.

It comes against the backdrop of declining US public support for the ultimate punishment, now at its lowest point since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976.

But Monday night's double execution -- the first in the United States since August 2000 -- has aroused little visible emotion in US political circles, and even less in the broader public.

Jones, 52, was sentenced to death for the 1995 rape and murder of 34-year-old Mary Phillips and for nearly beating to death her 11-year-old daughter Lacey, whose testimony helped convict him.

He was executed after the Supreme Court refused an 11th-hour request to reconsider a procedural issue from his trial.

The execution process began at 7:06 pm (0006 GMT Tuesday) and Jones was pronounced dead at 7:20 pm, Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper.

Jones was calm as he made a rambling final statement while strapped to the gurney, saying he tried to become a better person and apologizing to Lacey, the paper said, citing media witnesses in the death chamber.

Williams, 46, died hours later after his appeals were exhausted.

He had been convicted of the 1994 rape and murder of 22-year-old Stacy Errickson, whom he had kidnapped at an Arkansas gas station.

In a final flurry of challenges, his lawyers first argued that Williams's extreme obesity -- he weighed 400 pounds (180 kilograms) -- would make it difficult to find a vein for a lethal injection.

Then, it pointed to Jones's execution as evidence that the midazolam meant to plunge the subject into a state of unconsciousness was not working properly.

"Mr Jones was moving his lips and gulping for air," they said.

But attorneys for Arkansas said the accusation was not supported by media or witness accounts, and that claims the execution "appeared to be tortuous and inhumane are utterly baseless."

After a brief stay of execution to investigate, the state was allowed to proceed.

Outside the state prison in Varner, Arkansas, death penalty opponents held a grim vigil.

Williams was pronounced dead at 10:33 pm (0333 GMT).

Rutledge said in separate statements that the family and friends of the victims had "seen justice carried out."

- Legal clashes -

The lethal injections at the center of the controversy are composed of three drugs -- midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride -- administered one after another.

Critics say midazolam does not always adequately sedate prisoners before the other drugs induce death, potentially causing undue suffering.

And McKesson Medical-Surgical, a distributor for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, had asked courts to ban the use of vecuronium bromide, a paralytic, in the chemical cocktail used to kill prisoners.

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