Arkansas Justice: Racism, torture and a botched execution...

Jimi Swagger

I say whatever I think should be said
Jan 25, 2015
Turtle Island to DXB

Full story here: Arkansas Justice: Racism, Torture, and a Botched Execution
Doubt most will bother to read it, digest and respond. Sad times man.

JUST OVER SIX MONTHS have passed since the disturbing execution of Kenneth Williams, but as far as the state of Arkansas is concerned, it might as well be ancient history. No sooner did media witnesses return to the press room on the night of April 27 to describe how Williams coughed and convulsed on the gurney than officials acted like nothing had happened. Never mind the veteran reporter who said it was unlike any execution he had ever seen. Gov. Asa Hutchinson dismissed calls for an investigation. “My goal was to make sure that we had justice in Arkansas in a way that reflected well on the state,” he said the next day, “and I think that was accomplished.”

In reality, the apparently botched execution was the culmination of an ugly ordeal that had put Arkansas at the center of international controversy for weeks. Hutchinson had originally scheduled execution dates for eight men to take place over 11 days last spring, in a rush to use drugs set to expire at the end of April. The plan sparked chaos, with defense attorneys scrambling to write clemency petitions, state lawyers beating back legal challenges, and prison staff preparing to try out a questionable sedative, midazolam, never previously used in Arkansas. The drug has been linked to several executions gone awry, and many observers warned something was bound to go wrong. Of the four executions that proceeded, Williams’s fulfilled the worst predictions. One attorney called it “horrifying.”

Yet there has been no reckoning; no meaningful look at how the drugs were administered or whether Williams was tortured to death. Shielded by the state’s secrecy law, there has been no sanction for state officials who were willing to buy drugs by any means necessary, including by misleading drug manufacturers who did not wish their products to be used to kill. In fact, just this week Arkansas was poised to execute another man, Jack Gordon Greene, until his execution was stayed by the Arkansas Supreme Court over concerns about his severe mental illness.

Today, the only public official held accountable for any potential misconduct during the state’s execution spree is a man who stood briefly in the way. Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen issued a temporary restraining order after a pharmaceutical corporation sued the Arkansas Department of Correction, charging officials with buying drugs under false pretenses and then refusing to return them. That same day, Griffen, a Baptist minister, took part in a dramatic Good Friday protest outside the governor’s mansion, playing the condemned in a mock execution. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge cried foul – and the consequences were swift: The Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a disciplinary review and announced it would reassign all of Griffen’s death penalty cases. In a special session, state legislators voted to implement rules that would allow for his impeachment.

Griffen defended himself, citing his First Amendment rights. But his fight with what he calls Arkansas’s “white power structure” has exposed a deeper divide. “In the history of Arkansas, no white member of the Arkansas judiciary has ever been summarily banned from hearing an entire category of cases based on his or her exercise of the First Amendment protected freedoms of speech, peaceful assembly, religion, and exercise of religion,” Griffen argues in a lawsuit filed against the Arkansas Supreme Court last month. He cites “multiple white judges in Arkansas who admitted to engaging in criminal behavior have been treated more favorably.”

Among them is a judge who led police officers on a high-speed chase after blowing through a sobriety checkpoint. That man pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated, on same day Griffen took part in the demonstration in Little Rock. The white judge will go back to presiding over DWI cases next month. “African-American Judge Griffen, on the other hand, is barred for life from presiding over any cases involving the death penalty,” his lawsuit argues.

Griffen is 65 years old, raised by sharecroppers in the rural town of Delight, Arkansas. He may never have become a judge if not for a lawsuit brought in 1989, which exposed how black voters were being disenfranchised from judicial elections, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. In 1991, just as executions were returning to Arkansas, a consent decree forced the state to create new electoral subdistricts. Several black judges would be elected in years to come, among them Griffen, voted onto the bench in 2010.

Griffen is no stranger to controversy. He is outspoken against racism on his blog, sometimes using his sermons to point out ways in which Arkansas has not abandoned the white supremacy of its past, but has reinvented it. He has been open about his moral opposition to the death penalty, while also issuing legal rulings against people facing execution. Griffin argues he is perfectly capable of following the law even when it conflicts with his personal views. Others decry him as an activist judge.

Yet his critics’ own controversies have raised questions about how fairly they approach questions of law and order. Chief among them is Rutledge, who continues to lead the charge to carry out executions. A Donald Trump supporter whose father was the drug czar under former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, she came under criticism a few years ago after sending a shockingly racist email mocking black people in 2014. There were no consequences.

Racism has always helped decide who gets punished in Arkansas, and how. Three black men and one white man died in the Arkansas death house last April. Of all of them, Kenneth Williams undoubtably had the most blood on his hands. But if no one cares to consider how he died, it is also because whitewashing torture has a long tradition in Arkansas prisons. State officials ignored their own grim history in their rush to execute last spring. By absolving itself of wrongdoing, Arkansas continues to repeat it.


Gould Mayor Essie Mae Cableton sits in her office in Gould, Ark. Cableton worked as a corrections sergeant at the Cummins Unit until her retirement in 2007.

MAYOR ESSIE MAE Cableton was in her office the day Arkansas killed Kenneth Williams, across from the Dollar General on Highway 65. The city of Gould, population 836, lies on the southern edge of sprawling farmland owned by the Arkansas Department of Correction, in unincorporated parts of Lincoln County. The land is anchored by two maximum-security prisons: the Varner Unit, which houses men on death row, and the Cummins Unit, where they are sent to die.

That morning, 38-year-old Williams waited in a holding cell next to the death chamber just up the road. News vans would soon start arriving to cover his death, scheduled for 7 p.m. It would be the fourth execution at the prison in eight days.

Cableton once worked at the Cummins Unit. Now 76, she was born and raised in Gould during a different era. She remembers picking cotton in the fields alongside her sisters by the time she was six. “We would get like $2.50 or $3 per hundred pounds,” Cableton said. White students passing on school buses sometimes threw things out the window, laughing at “those ******s picking cotton.” After graduating from Gould Colored High School, Cableton worked factory jobs and joined the civil rights movement. She married an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had a field office in town. In one corner of her office, an old photograph shows the safe house where activists met to hide from the Ku Klux Klan.

Back then, the local penitentiary, known as Cummins Prison Farm, was “a very horrible place,” Cableton said. Neighbors saw men getting whipped in the fields. In the 1969 expose, “Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal,” former prison superintendent Tom Murton described the system as one of modern-day slavery, built upon “an ancient philosophy of retribution, corruption, exploitation, sadism and brutality.” Rather than pay civilian guards, the state relied on armed “trusties,” who violently enforced the state-ordered regimen of hard labor on fellow prisoners. Men were towed to the fields like cattle, harvesting crops under close supervision. Many compared it to a Nazi concentration camp.

Whippings were routine and legal in those years – and torture was an open secret. Especially notorious was an instrument called the “Tucker Telephone,” facilitated by so-called prison doctors at a penitentiary of the same name. As Murton described it, “An undressed inmate was strapped to the treatment table at Tucker Hospital while electrodes were attached to his big toe and to his penis. The crank was then turned, sending an electrical charge into his body. In ‘long distance calls,’ several charges were inflicted – of a duration designed to stop just short of the inmate’s fainting.”

The brutality in Arkansas prisons made national headlines following a police probe in 1966. A handful of firings followed, but many politicians dismissed the revelations. “Ninety-five per cent of the complaints of convicts are lies,” said one lawmaker, a former chair of the penitentiary board. Another simply declared: “Arkansas has the best prison system in the United States.” After Murton discovered three skeletons buried at Cummins – proof of longtime rumors that some “escapees” had actually been murdered – evidence and press witnesses who saw the exhuming were whitewashed by a state investigation. Murton was pushed out. One state senator called for him to be censured for digging up the bodies in the first place.


A field lieutenant with prisoners picking cotton at Cummins Prison Farm in 1975

In 1970, a federal judge declared the whole Arkansas prison system unconstitutional, deeming it a “dark and evil world.” By the time Cableton took a job as a guard 30 years later, the system had been totally overhauled. The Tucker Telephone was moved to a museum. Still, at the Cummins Unit, she could see the “circle in the floor where the whipping block used to be.”

If torture was officially a thing of the past, a harsh new form of punishment had been introduced in the meantime. In 1990, after more than 25 years without an execution in Arkansas, Gov. Bill Clinton ushered in a wave of new executions, replacing the electric chair with lethal injection. It was ostensibly a more humane method of killing, overseen by medical personnel. But the first execution, of Ronald Gene Simmons, was harrowing; witnesses saw him cough and heave, shaking the gurney. Two years later, while on the campaign trail, Clinton himself famously witnessed the execution of brain-damaged Ricky Ray Rector, who died a similarly disturbing death.

These executions took place before Cableton’s time at Cummins. But she remembers the 1995 execution of Barry Lee Fairchild, a black man with mental disabilities who had been railroaded by a racist sheriff for a crime he swore he did not commit. “It still bothers me,” Cableton said, “because I’m wondering was an innocent man put to death?”

As a member of Cummins’s Emergency Response Team, Cableton provided security on execution nights. “At that time to me, it was just part of the job,” she said. Still, the job had always been a last resort. She grew tired of the overnight shifts and “John Wayne-type” supervisors, who reminded her of the men who cursed at her when she was a child working in their fields. “I told them it was time I come out of Egypt,” she said. “I can’t stand for a man now to tell me what to do.” In 2007, at age 65, Cableton left Cummins. She went back to school and got a degree in criminal justice. In 2015, she ran for mayor. She won by five votes.

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