President Clinton and the Execution of Ricky Ray Rector

Chip Shields

I am grateful for the many good things that happened during the Clinton presidency, particularly in comparison to what we’ve had the last seven years. But one thing that has always stuck in my craw was his active participation in the execution of Ricky Ray Rector just before the 1992 New Hampshire primary.

I thought I might bring it up to President Clinton some day if I ever was fortunate enough to meet him. But since he’s in town today, and since I may well never meet the man, I thought I'd share my concerns here and see what Blue Oregon readers think. Maybe I'm wrong. And who knows, maybe President Clinton or his people will come across Blue Oregon while he’s in town.

Ricky Ray Rector was executed just before the New Hampshire primary in 1992 for the brutal murders of Arthur Criswell and Officer Robert Martin. Rector had known Officer Martin since he was a child.

Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights saw the Clinton-Rector execution as part of the modern exploitation of the crime problem that went back to Eisenhower, but which was perfected in campaigns of Presidents Nixon and George Bush I.

In the St. Louis University Law Journal, Bright wrote:

Not nearly as noticed (as the Bush Willie Horton ads of 1988), but just as significant and perhaps saddest of all, was when then-Governor Clinton went back to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a brain-damaged man, Ricky Ray Rector, an African-American who was sentenced to death by an all-white jury for the murder of a white policeman… After shooting the policeman, Rector, who always had mental problems, put the gun to his own head and shot himself, destroying the front part of his brain. Clinton scheduled the execution for a short time before the New Hampshire Primary.

Clinton went back to Arkansas to make a spectacle out of Ricky Rector's execution and get as much political mileage out of it as possible. The logs at the prison show that in Ricky Rector's last days, he was howling and barking like a dog, dancing, singing and laughing inappropriately, and saying that he was going to vote for Clinton.

Charles Taylor at Salon noted, “The execution went horribly wrong, with Rector's arm finally being slashed to insert a catheter when a vein for the lethal injection could not be found. (Rector was clearly unable to comprehend what was happening -- thinking that his executioners were doctors coming to his aid, he attempted to assist them.)"

Bright continues:

Rector had a habit every night of putting his dessert aside until bedtime. After Ricky Rector was executed, they found in his cell that he had put his pie aside that night. Not having enough appreciation for what death meant, he did not realize he was not going to come back to eat his pie that evening.

Even the Arkansas Supreme Court said that Rector’s was a case that should be considered for executive clemency, but there was a more important agenda. The Democrats were taking back the crime issue. Bill Clinton in the midst of the controversy regarding Gennifer Flowers, was showing that he was tough and that not only did he believe in the death penalty, but he actually carried it out.

Many Democrats argue that we need to seize the crime issue and be tough on crime. Amnesty International has suggested that the death penalty is a human rights abuse. And if the Rector execution is what tough on crime looks like, I’ll settle for a more basic respect for human rights. And as public policy, I’ll take true life with no chance of parole over the death penalty any day.

But what do you think?

Oh, and welcome back to Oregon President Clinton. I truly miss most of your presidency.

Comments

  • (Show?)

    This ghastly execution has always stuck in my craw. Thank you so much for bringing it back up, Chip. I can't tell you how good it feels to have an elected official who is unafraid to make an unambiguous statement about how wrong state-sponsored killing is.

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    Wow. Just wow.

    I agree wholly with Bear's above statement. Executions, especially when abused in cases like this, is wrong wrong wrong and a big black mark on our society.

  • Scott Bennett (unverified)
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    Bill Clinton was a disgusting pig in 1992, and has not changed since. I do believe both he and his wife got used to soul-selling very early in their political career(s). How sad. They are the mutual personification of how to keep American politics stuck in the gutter for their own benefit - at the expense of everyone else.

    Killing a mentally disabled inmate? Just part of the game for them. Hillary would probably do it, too.

  • (Show?)

    As a constituent of Chip's, I very much appreciate his willingness to speak out on civil justice issues.

    Not only is the Ricky Ray Rector incident extremely disturbing, Senator Clinton has been more than willing to exploit any thoughtful discussion about our civil justice system for political gain. For example, leading up to New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign hit Obama for suggesting that "mandatory minimums take away too much power from judges." [Source: ABC News 1/4/08]

    A central failure of the Bush presidency has been to view everything through a political lens. But when Clinton hits Obama for being "too progressive" on mandatory minimums, she's part of this same mentality. Mandatory minimums get enacted because of politicians more concerned with the next election than basic principles of justice and fairness.

    It's almost like the domestic equivalent of voting to authorize the Iraqi War Resolution because of policital motivations.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)
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    "Yikes" is a reasonable response to the facts of the case. What I wonder, however, is if this posting is implicitly targeted at Hillary (not Bill) Clinton, and if so, whether that is reasonable.

    Regardless of my own (decidedly mixed) feelings about the WJ Clinton presidency, I long ago decided that I would make my judgment about HR Clinton INDEPENDENTLY. It's HR who's running for president now, not WJ.

    And...I have decided. I've decided my preference is for Barack Obama.

    But it would be naive to suppose that separating WJ and HR is a trivial affair, especially because HR has so closely tied her candidacy both to WJ's presidency and to her claims about her own influence on WJ's presidency.

    It is obviously impossible for anyone to know if WJ and HR discussed the Rector execution, and if so, what HR might have said. So I'm not assigning her credit or blame for the execution.

  • Bill R. (unverified)
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    Since Hillary is running on the record of the Clinton era, it is appropriate for her to be evaluated on that record. There were many policy positions I liked about Bill Clinton. His pandering to the right wing at the expense of human rights, as in this case was disgusting. Too many progressive politicians are unwilling to state their opposition to the death penalty as a matter of conscience because they are unwilling to pay the political price. Once again here we see the sell out of a basic principle of human worth and dignity for the sake of appealing to right wing ideology. Anything to win! Tough on crime doesn't mean killing other human beings for revenge in an imperfect and unjust system where the poor and people of color are the target, and the scapegoat for our fear and anger. You can bet Hillary is on the same page with Bill on this.

  • Chris (unverified)
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    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 instantly after being struck in the throat and forehead.

    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, Ricky Ray Rector drew 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.

    Pay back is a Bit*h.

  • (Show?)

    I've raised this issue a couple other times recently around here in relation to Clinton nostalgia tied to Hillary Clinton's campaign. My overall view of Clinton probably is is more negative than Chip's. Thanks for the detail here, parts of which I didn't know or heard reported differently (e.g. I'd heard that he asked guards to keep his dessert for him until after the execution).

    Interestingly, a governor in Clinton's position might not be able to execute a Ricky Ray Rector today, since the Supreme Court has ruled against executing mentally retarded persons, and the same reasoning probably would apply to brain-damaged persons.

    This story only became known to me in the run-up to the 1996 election, in which I voted for Ralph Nader because I had come to so dislike Clinton. Looking back, I wonder if it would have affected my vote in 1992 (I voted for someone other than Clinton in the '92 primary).

    If I'm really serious in my criticism of this as something like judicial murder for political expediency, if not exactly that, I should be clear that I would have voted against Clinton had I known. Yet I'm not certain. So I guess I should temper my criticism of Clinton in that light -- expediency comes in various sizes at all levels -- and try to remember for next time.

    It says something about a sickness in U.S. culture that the consequences of a general policy in Willie Horton's actions should have severely damaged Michael Dukakis' presidential campaigns, but that Bill Clinton's deliberate creation of Ricky Ray Rector's execution as a "tough on crime" spectacle through personal involvement should have helped his campaign, or have been thought by him to be helpful.

    As for policy, I pretty much agree with where you end up Chip, certainly on the human rights part. I am not entirely certain about "true life".

    This whole area of our national life has become so warped by the "tough on crime" rhetoric that it is hard to have a clear view of it. It at least has the merit of in theory allowing a wrongly convicted innocent person to overturn the conviction. SuperMax prisons and toleration of rape and communicable diseases in prisons all seem to me to be violations of human rights as well. And the attitude that treats "toughness" as an unquestionable good contributes I believe to the erosion of other constitutional human and civil rights and civil liberties, via transfer to "tough on terrorism" and the related politics of fear.

  • iwmpb (unverified)
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    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 instantly after being struck in the throat and forehead.

    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, Ricky Ray Rector drew 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.

    Pay back is a Bit*h.

    Thank you! He understood full well what was happening when he CHOSE to kill two innocent people. He tried to kill himself, and was unsuccessful. The state simply carried out his wishes.

    • (Show?)

      But then you go back to wonder why did they operate to save him just to kill him after he no longer understood what he had done and what was going on. I am really torn over this one because I do believe in the death penelty to those who take a life and are able to understand what they done. He obviously did not understand after his lombotomy. So you killed someone who had no recolection of what they had done. What kind of satisfaction would that bring to a family of the lost loved one? Ricky Recor the one who had committed the crime was no longer there. No justice in that.

  • DE (unverified)
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    Frankly, the state should kill anyone who tries to commit suicide. Just carrying out their wishes, right?

  • Laura Graser (unverified)
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    Yes, payback is a bitch. I choose not to be a bitch.

    Thus I join Chip in opposing the death penalty. Rector was in prison for life, there was no reason to think he would escape or kill anyone in prison. Killing him was unnecessary. I choose not to support unnecessary killing.

  • Dann Cutter (unverified)
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    This example brings up an interesting idea actually: Is society hampered by its concern over individual vs. societal good.

    American is essentially founded on the idea of preservation of individual good. However, would the same principles been so forthcoming had their been 250 Million of us then? A Billion?

    We can look at the brutality (perceived... and, from personal experience, incontrovertible) of a country like China, but we don't have the issues and problems they do. How many resources do we consume to keep someone like this Rector alive, once he has had due process? How many others suffer malnutrition, abuse or neglect as we guarantee this man's individualized rights? Are we better off as a society for it?

    Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating abandoning the Constitution by any means... frankly, I am not advocating anything - I don't know enough to know enough to make up my mind on this one. I am asking a serious question however, as I think the world is shifting... we are headed to a more global, and thereby less Americanized, power structure.

    What will we sacrifice (and whom) to keep our ideals from 1776?

  • Larry (unverified)
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    "Thus I join Chip in opposing the death penalty. Rector was in prison for life, there was no reason to think he would escape or kill anyone in prison. Killing him was unnecessary. I choose not to support unnecessary killing." +++

    So do you also oppose late term abortions?

    Not trolling with bait, but a serious question.

    As somebody who is 'pro-life' I do struggle with my view on capital punishment for the most heinous murders.

  • iwmpb (unverified)
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    Frankly, the state should kill anyone who tries to commit suicide. Just carrying out their wishes, right?

    If they killed innocent people, absolutely. If the shooter at VA Tech had survived his self-inflicted wounds, I would feel exactly the same way. Interesting that you chose not to address the fact that he shot people prior to the failed attempt on his own life (which is the ONLY reason he no longer had the mental capacity to understand the nature of his crimes at the time of his execution)

  • Nick from Eugene (unverified)
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    If you know the background of how he committed the crimes and how he became mentally challenged by shooting himself, it becomes a little more defensible. But it's still pretty awful I think.

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