LIFE AND DEATH
Gangster by 9, Murderer by 19, Minister by 26. Executed by 39?
Arkansas is trying to put to death six men in 11 days. The last of them, Kenneth Williams, says he is fine with that after everything he’s done.
On April 27, nearly 20 years after murdering his first victim, Kenneth Williams is scheduled to be executed by the state of Arkansas. Whether it will happen is now unclear given a spate of legal challenges that have temporarily halted the executions.
Williams is to be the last of six men put to death in the span of 11 days, before the state’s supply of lethal injection drugs expires at the end of the month. It would be the fastest string of executions nationwide in more than 40 years. Both state and federal judges issued temporary restraining orders against the state for the executions over the weekend. At issue is the drugs to be used to kill the men.
One of those drugs, midazolam, has caused a number of botched executions nationwide. Last year in Alabama, one inmate heaved, coughed, and opened his eyes for 13 full minutes. Another in Ohio experienced “repeated cycles of snorting, gurgling and arching his back, appearing to writhe in pain,” according to a lawsuit. “It looked and sounded as though he was suffocating.”
“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,” Williams said, in a letter to The Marshall Project last week. “But I don’t want to live only because someone else suffers that agony,” he said. “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.”
Williams was sentenced to death after slaying a man in 1999 when he escaped from prison—where he was serving a life sentence for murdering a 19-year-old cheerleader. He killed another man while he was on the lam and later confessed to murdering a fourth victim.
The 38-year-old Williams has spent half of his life in prison, and he first entered the world of crime at age 9.
“In my world, it was get you before you can get me,” Williams said at a March clemency hearing. His father was abusive, and his mother a drug addict. At 9, Williams joined a street gang called the Gangster Disciples. Two years later he was molested by another boy.
It was then he decided to be “the predator, not the prey.” So he started raping younger children and carrying a gun, he said.
“I was angry and guilt-ridden, too ashamed to speak out,” he said. At 16, he was sent to prison, where he said he inflicted violence as much as he suffered it.
After he was released, Williams would do far worse things.
The Last Meal
Nineteen-year-old cheerleader Dominique “Nikki” Hurd ate her last meal at Bonanza Steak House on the afternoon of Dec. 13, 1998. Because it was a Sunday, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff student and her friend, Peter Robertson, had gone to church and then stopped off for a late lunch.
Robertson testified in court that the couple was taking pictures of each other in the parking lot when Williams, 19, showed up “out of nowhere” and offered to take their photo, according to an August 2000 report by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Moments later, Williams pulled out a silver revolver and ordered them into their car. Williams took their money, their jewelry, and credit cards, and made Robertson drive to an ATM and withdraw cash.
He eventually ordered them to pull over again, this time at a dead-end street. Then he handed the camera to Robertson and forced him to take pictures of their captor posing with a terrified Hurd, Robertson testified. Williams eventually lifted up the teen’s dress, pulled down her underwear, and ordered Robertson to keep taking pictures.
“He took us to a place—I really don’t know where we were,” Robertson said in court, according to the newspaper. “We thought he’d pulled off. But he hadn’t, because he came back.”
Williams demanded that Hurd give him her purse, which she did.
“Where did you say you were from again?” Williams asked them, according to legal documents.
Hurd answered, “Dallas,” and Robertson said, “New Jersey.”
“I don’t like the n**gers from Dallas anyway,” Williams, who is black, said before he shot them both, emptying his gun. Then he drove off.
Robertson, drenched in blood, staggered to the road where a passing car picked him up and helped him call police. He survived, but Hurd didn’t.
Williams later said that he had planned to rob someone that day to pay his rent and that the two teens crossed his path by chance. Eventually he caved to a “relentless” voice in his head that whispered, “Aren’t you a bit curious how it feels to kill someone?”
After the shooting, Williams ditched the stolen car and set it on fire.
Five days later, Williams was charged with one count of capital murder, one count of attempted capital murder, two counts of kidnaping, two counts of aggravated robbery, two counts of theft of property, and one count of arson. A jury sentenced him to prison for life without the possibility for parole.
When the sentence came back, Williams taunted Hurd’s family from his seat in the courtroom.
“You thought I was going to die, didn’t you?” he said.
Three weeks after he was sentenced to life in prison, he escaped.
It took about 12 hours for anyone to notice that Williams was missing on Oct. 3, 1999. According to legal documents, it was a Sunday, so he was released from his barracks in the prison at 7:27 a.m. on a “religious call.” Williams made his way into the kitchen, stowed away in a vat of pig slop, and then was carried out without anyone the wiser. Once in a Department of Corrections garbage truck and away from the prison’s campus, Williams jumped out of the tank and into a ditch in the town of Grady.
A local farmer saw him run across the highway in the area a little before 10 a.m. Later, officials found a prison shirt with Williams’s name on it hanging from a tree limb.
That morning, Genie Boren went to church alone, leaving her 57-year-old husband, Cecil, at home to work in the yard. When Genie returned, she noticed a large pool of blood.
She found Cecil near the bayou, his bloodied dead body face down without shoes or socks. He’d been shot seven times, his jewelry was gone, and there were scrape marks all over his body from being dragged through his yard, according to legal documents. Most of the bullets entered through his back. Police believe he was trying to flee.
After killing Boren, Williams drove to Missouri, where he was spotted the next day by police. He engaged in a high-speed chase, at one point driving up to 120 miles per hour.
During the pursuit, police said Williams rammed into a water-delivery truck. The driver, 24-year-old Michael Greenwood, was killed.
Williams fled on foot and broke into a nearby home. He was wearing Boren’s coveralls and wedding ring when police apprehended him. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, when State Trooper Ryan Pace handcuffed Williams and led him to the patrol car, Williams remarked: “Boy, that was some good driving.”
During the punishment phase of his trial for Boren’s murder, the farmer’s family bawled, speaking about how they missed him, the Democrat-Gazette reported at the time. His 28-year-old daughter Holly said she and her father used to kiss each other on the forehead when they said goodnight.
“The last time I was able to kiss him on his forehead, he was in his casket,” she reportedly sobbed.
Williams was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
“I hit rock bottom, and most people would say that’s where I belong,” Williams said, in a handwritten letter to The Pine Bluff Commercial in May 2005. “People have always asked me, ‘Why did you kill those innocent people?’ I really didn’t know how to answer that question, until now.”
He continued, “When you live a sinful life away from God, anything is possible. That includes mass murder. Learn from my mistakes.”
Williams says in the letter that he found God while in prison and that all those years later, it was time to reconcile for his mistakes. He confessed to killing Hurd, Boren, and Greenwood. Then, he confessed to one more crime.
On the same day he killed Hurd, Williams murdered another man, he said. He shot 36-year-old Jerrell Jenkins twice in the chest with a .357 caliber handgun. Jenkins’s unsolved murder case had been pending since a child found his body while walking to school in Pine Bluff on Dec. 14, 1998, according to a 2005 story in the Commercial.
“I take full responsibility for my actions and whatever consequences my peers see fit,” he scrawled in pencil on lined paper. “Without God being in my life, I never would have confessed to these crimes. I would have denied them until I went to my grave.
“I know that the embarrassment and shame that I brought upon my community is unacceptable and intolerable,” Williams wrote. “As a community, we are supposed to love one another and work together as one. What we do as individuals reflects upon our communities.”
“I don’t invoke the name of God and Jesus to get out of a death sentence,” Williams said. “Again, not to sound arrogant, but whether or not you grant me clemency is fine with me.”
Dressed in white tennis shoes and a white prison uniform, the bespectacled Williams gave a scripture-heavy, hour-long address to the board about his devout life. He’s now an ordained minister and simply wants to spread the word of God, he said.
“The word of God will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you away from the word of God,” he wrote in 2010, in another letter to the Commercial.
“I can clearly see when I read the newspaper a reflection of character of the old lawless Kenneth Williams, who terrorized the residents of Pine Bluff,” he said. “I respectfully petition young men and women out there in society, think of the consequences of your actions, and start making better decisions.
“To all whom have an ear to hear, this is a pathway of destruction that crime, gangs, drugs, violence and ungodliness takes you down,” he continued.
“Suffer no delusions, what a man sow he will reap.”