(Thanks to David Elliot at Abolish the Death Penalty for the guest post -ed.)
The strange case of Ricky Ray Rector, executed by the state of Arkansas on Jan. 24, 1992, is what many observers of the death penalty system in the U.S. might call a trifecta.
First, Rector was African American. Of course, African Americans are disproportionately represented on death rows in the U.S., compared with their representation in the general U.S. population.
Second, Rector was severely mentally impaired. More about that in a couple of paragraphs.
Third, Rector suffered from a botched execution. It took a team of five executioners 50 minutes to find a suitable vein in which to inject the lethal cocktail. During this time, witnesses heard continued moaning from the inmate. (The process of repeatedly jabbing an inmate with a needle, over and over and over again, might not seem as torturous as, say, garroting or drawing and quartering. But it can hardly be described as painless.)
Now, on with the story.
According to Wikipedia, on March 21, 1981, Rector and some friends drove to a dance hall at Tommy’s Old-Fashioned Home-Style Restaurant in Conway. When one of Rector’s friends was refused entry after being unable to pay the three dollar cover charge, Rector became incensed and pulled a .38 pistol from his waist band. He fired several shots, wounding two and killing a third man. The third man, Arthur Criswell, died almost instantaneously after being struck in the throat and forehead. Rector left the scene of the murder in a friend’s car and wandered the city for three days, alternately staying in the woods or with relatives. On March 24, Rector’s sister convinced him to turn himself in. Rector agreed to surrender only to Officer Robert Martin, who he had known since he was a child.
Officer Martin arrived at Rector’s mother’s home shortly after three p.m. and began chatting with Rector’s mother and sister. Shortly thereafter, Rector arrived and greeted Officer Martin. As Officer Martin turned away to continue his conversation with Mrs. Rector, Rickey pulled his pistol from behind his back and fired two shots into Officer Martin, striking him in the jaw and neck. Rector then turned and walked out of the house. Once he had walked past his mother’s backyard, Rector put his gun to his own temple and fired. Rector was quickly discovered by other police officers and was rushed to the local hospital. The shot had destroyed Rector’s frontal lobe, resulting in what was essentially a self-lobotomy.
Rector survived the surgery and was put on trial for the murders of Criswell and Martin. His defense attorneys argued that Rector was not competent to stand trial, but after hearing conflicting testimony from several experts who had evaluated Rector, Judge George F. Hartje ruled that Rector was competent to stand trial. Rector was convicted on both counts and sentenced to death.
When Rector’s execution day approached, he was given the standard last meal. For dessert, he was offered a slice of pecan pie, which he moved to the window sill of his holding cell. When asked why he was not eating his pie, he remarked that he was “saving it” for “after the execution.”
If there had been any doubt that Rector did not understand his impending fate, that sealed it. His execution proceeded nonetheless – this was, after all, Arkansas in the early 1990s.
If that were the end of the story, we probably would not be writing about Rector today. (Then again, given the nature of this blog, maybe we would.)
But, completely unbeknownst to him, Rector would enter the annals of American presidential politics.
Back in 1988, at one time, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis enjoyed a huge advantage in the polls over the Republican nominee, George H. W. Bush. Why he lost that lead is probably the focal point of another blog somewhere, but one reason is certainly due to The Question.
The Question came during a presidential debate between Bush and Dukakis when CNN Anchor Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis what his view on the death penalty would be if his wife Kitty were raped and murdered. To this day, pundits remember Dukakis’ tepid, emotionless and altogether inadequate response.
Enter Bill Clinton, 1992 presidential candidate. Clinton interrupted campaigning in New Hampshire to fly home to preside over the execution of the mentally challenged Rector. (Such an act was not necessary legally – the execution could well have proceeded without the governor’s presence in the state. But Clinton wanted to prove that he was a “new” Democrat, tough on crime.)
History has not treated Clinton kindly for this calculated and callous act of political opportunism. In 2002, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote:
A date which ought to live in infamy for the Democratic Party is Jan. 24, 1992. That’s the day Ricky Ray Rector was executed in Arkansas while Gov. Bill Clinton stood by and did nothing. On that day in Arkansas, the Democratic Party also died. Its body is still with us, to be sure, but its heart and soul died 10 years ago.
There’s evidence this could be changing. Although no major Democratic candidate (sorry, Dennis) has come out against the death penalty, the fact of the matter is the death penalty, at least in Democratic circles, has lost its saliency as a political issue.
And that, at least, is a baby step.