My Execution, 20 Days Away
In Arkansas, eight men are scheduled to die by lethal injection this month. Here is one of their stories.
Illustration af Dola Sun
This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
Kenneth Williams is one of eight men scheduled to be executed in Arkansas over 11 days this month. The unusually busy schedule has set off last-minute appeals, as well as lawsuits over the state's use of the sedative midazolam.
Not many people have seen a real death warrant in person, let alone been issued one with their name on it.
I remember the warden instructing security to escort us in restraints from our cells, one at a time, to a small office where we were surrounded by prison officials. The warden read aloud the information off the warrants, which included our names, our crimes, and the jury's verdict.
There was silence. My mind remained unaffected, having undergone this very thing before only to later receive a stay of execution. There was a measure of calm, knowing I wasn't alone, that there were seven others—though, given the love I have for the other guys, I would rather have done it alone.
I was handed the death warrant, a longer-than-usual sheet of paper with the golden seal of the State of Arkansas fixed on it. At the bottom, there was the signature of Governor Asa Hutchinson.
Death, one step closer. Tick, tick.
When you're issued a date, you want to be the first to break the news to your family. But often the press gets to them first. For the prisoner, as the fatal day approaches, the hardest part is knowing you've condemned your loved ones to a bitter fate. Once you depart, they have to carry on.
It is vital that I reach a place of self-forgiveness, so that I can write to my 21-year-old daughter and break the news to her. I could soon be joining her mother in the afterlife, leaving her parentless. Just writing that letter is enough to make me consider beating the executioner to the punch, but I've been stabilized and sustained by the inner peace and forgiveness I've received through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Oh boy, do the letters come pouring in after an execution date has been set! During mail call, I receive more mail than ever before about the wellbeing of my soul. Do you know God? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as lord of your life? If you don't repent before you die you will go to hell.
They send typed letters, handwritten letters, cards, books, etc.
Most of these materials are destined for the trash. Where were they all those years, when I was sitting on death row, when I might have embraced what they had to offer? I see them as opportunists who want to brag to their friends about how they tried to win my soul.
At this point, an individual has already made his peace with God, or hasn't.
Some of the prisoners opted out of petitioning for clemency, knowing the board usually issues a denial. They figured they'd save themselves the disappointment.
I, on the other hand, saw opportunity. I wanted to appear before the board so I could show them I was no longer the person I once was. God has transformed me, and even the worst of us can be reformed and renewed. Revealing these truths meant more to me then being granted clemency. I'm still going to eventually die someday, but to stand up for God in front of man, that's my victory.
To the families of my victims, to whom I have brought pain, great loss, and suffering, as shallow as "I am sorry for robbing you of your loved one" can sound, I would rather say it, and mean it, than not say it at all.
I was asked by mental health personnel, "Have you been thinking about harming yourself?"
I was offended — the train of thought behind the question is to get ahead of anyone thinking of ending their life before the state can do so. They don't want us to beat them to the punch.
After a death row prisoner has received a date, others who have befriended him make their pitch: Let me have those tennis shoes. Leave me have that watch. Let me get your radio. The poor guy may feel like he's being picked apart. Other things he doesn't want to give to prisoners, like family pictures or old letters, he can send home in a box, shortly before he too is sent home in a box.
An officer showed up at my cell door today and asked, "Kenneth, how are you?" Then he asked, "What is your shirt and pant size? What size shoe do you wear? How tall are you? How much do you weigh?"
Talk about the lamb being sized up before the slaughter. I thought: Have they forgotten I am human, or do they just not care? Then I thought: Wasn't it my disregard for human life that got me in this situation to begin with?
I know that midazolam, one of the drugs used in the cocktail to put prisoners to death, doesn't always anesthetize the prisoner completely. Since I am one of the last to be executed, there are some people who think that if one of the first executions is botched, it could prolong the lives of the others, including me. But I don't want to live only because someone else suffers that agony. Others suffering in order that I live for however much longer—that's no hope at all, not if I have truly learned my lesson to value other people's lives.
Kenneth Williams was sentenced to death for murdering Cecil Boren during a 1999 escape attempt from the Cummins Unit in Grady, Arkansas. Williams had just begun a life sentence for the murder of university student Dominique Hurd. He later confessed to a third murder, and was responsible for the death of a fourth victim in a traffic accident during his escape.
This essay was derived from Williams's correspondence with Deborah Robinson, who is writing a book about the eight men scheduled for execution in Arkansas.