The Death of Ricky Ray Rector

How the execution of a mentally ill black man delivered Bill Clinton into the Oval Office.

Bill Clinton in 1999. Molly Gilliam / Department of Defense

Ricky Ray Rector grew up in Conway, Arkansas, just an hour’s drive from Bill Clinton’s own hometown of Hot Springs. From the very earliest days of his life, Ricky was considered different and strange. He had few friends, and while other children were out running around, Ricky sat under a tree playing alone with sticks. Those who saw him said he was dreamy and detached, “as if he were locked into some private daze of withdrawal.”

He was slow and inept as a student, with what was later described as an undiagnosed serious learning disability. As time went on, he became even more lost, as well as paranoid, and by junior high he “floundered ever more hopelessly in his classwork, still able only to print in the laboring hand of a third-grader.” And though unable to understand much of what was going on around him, Ricky was beaten mercilessly by his father.

As he grew up, Ricky became trouble. He would act out, he couldn’t focus. Others became unsettled by his presence, and would leave a room whenever he arrived. Soon, as an adolescent, still not having received mental health treatment, Ricky lapsed into violence and delinquency. He was arrested frequently for petty crimes. He could not maintain a stable job. He was angry. He spiraled into “a kind of slowly accelerating berserkness.”

In 1981, Ricky Ray Rector killed a man. After an argument outside a dance hall over a three-dollar cover charge, Rector removed a gun and started shooting randomly. Two people were wounded, while a third, Arthur Criswell, received a fatal bullet to the head.

Rector fled, but he didn’t go very far. Mostly he ducked in and out of various houses around Conway, running in circles, unsure where to go. Eventually, he found his way back to his mother and sister. After speaking with them for some time, he decided to turn himself in.

Rector’s mother called Officer Bob Martin, a family friend who knew Rector and whom Rector trusted. Martin was known as an affable and kind policeman, who walked the beat and got to know everyone in Conway. Rector was considered dangerous, but if there was one person who could safely bring him in, it was Martin.

Martin arrived at Mrs Rector’s home, and they waited for Ricky to arrive, chatting politely in the living room. But Martin did not get a chance to persuade Rector to surrender. Sneaking in from the rear of the house, Rector approached Martin from behind. When Martin turned around to greet Rector, Rector shot him in the head and ran from the house. Seconds after exiting the front door, Rector put the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger, collapsing into the street.

Officer Bob Martin did not survive Rector’s gunshot. But Rector himself did survive, albeit only in the most limited sense. In order to save Rector’s life, doctors had to remove about one-third of his brain, much of which had been destroyed when Rector shot himself.

The surgery left Rector effectively lobotomized. He had never been particularly mentally sound, but after having so much of his brain removed, Rector could barely function. A psychologist reported that he had “a near-total inability to conceptualize beyond a response to immediate sensations or provocations” and “seemed unable to grasp either the concept of past or future.” It was “a classic prefrontal lobotomy” that had left Rector “totally incompetent.” After realizing the extent to which Rector’s capacity had been destroyed, Rector’s sister simply assumed that Rector would be institutionalized for life. His mental functioning was that of a very young child.

But the people of Conway wanted justice. Bob Martin had been a beloved member of the community, and prosecutors wanted nothing less than to make sure Rector was executed for the crime. An expert for the state insisted Rector was competent to assist his own defense, and Rector was put on trial and sentenced to death. When Rector heard the judge read his sentence — death by electrocution — “he stood for a few moments as spectators began leaving the courtroom and the judge and jury also departed, and then turned . . . and muttered, ‘Does this mean I’ll get a television in my cell now?’”

Rector’s fellow death-row inmates immediately knew there was something very wrong with him. One said that “no one can pass his cell without answering a long repertoire of questions that he has about dogs . . . In the middle of the night, his light goes out, he’ll start screaming. He’s afraid of the dark . . . And everybody is up because Rector has woke everybody up.” Inmates even began supplying him with their own medications in the hope that it would help him to calm down.

The prison chaplain recalls meeting Rector for the first time: “He was gripping the bars, howling, jumping . . . There were Indians, he thought, in the corner of his cell, who he was busy hunting. In between, he would speak to me.” Rector was “hollering,” “dancing,” then “jumping over and shooting at where he had been dancing. Pigman says that “it was obvious [Rector] had the mentality of about a six- or seven-year-old. . .” For three weeks, Rector cowered in his cell, “like a child cringing in his bunk,” and refused to come to the chapel “because he was afraid someone would kill him.” Chaplain Pigman conducted his service alone with Rector in his cell, as Rector “hulked” in the corner of the room.

The prison staff’s notes read: “Smiles continuously . . . Occasionally noted to scream and yell without apparent reason . . . Laughing without apparent reason.” There were “intermittent bursts of barking, baying, then blaring laughter and little gleeful shuffles of dancing, fingers snapping.”

When Rector’s sister Stella visited him, he told her “about serpents slithering across his bunk, alligators and chickens set loose by the guards, and people shining spotlights into his cell.” She remembers that “he was afraid of everything that moved. He was afraid to go outside in the yard, because he thought somebody would hurt him, do something to him.” Rector believed his guards were releasing loose alligators and chickens into his cell. At one point, Stella visited Rector to let him know that his brother had just died. “He asked only a few questions,” she said, “and then all of a sudden he asked, ‘You see all that monkey smoke in here?’ And began to pace like a wild animal.”

Rector’s reaction to his mother’s death was similarly bizarre. “Ricky and my mother had always had this sort of special bond between them,” Stella recalled. But when one of his attorneys told Rector that his mother was dead, “there was absolutely no reaction . . . [he] only said, ‘She is?’ And then, ‘When’s dinner?’” When his sister took him to the funeral home to see his mother’s body, “he started laughing when he saw her . . . said, ‘Yeah, that’s her all right, she’s dead.’”

After a few visits, Stella concluded that “[t]he person you see here and the person that I see, it looks like Ricky. He talks like Ricky, he has some characteristics of Ricky. But the real Ricky Ray Rector was destroyed when he shot himself with the gun. This person is just not my brother.”

It was clear that Rector had become deeply disturbed. A psychologist described his linguistic capacity as operating at a “very, very primitive type of level” and his motor skills as negligible (“he fumbles, he has trouble picking up coins.”) Rector’s functioning was so obviously impaired, according to the psychologist, that there was “no possibility that Rector was shamming his pitiable performances in their examinations” (one of the state’s own specialists reported that Rector was “trying to do the best he could on those tests”).

Ricky Ray Rector had been set for an execution date several times, but his case had been winding through the appellate process. Finally, his appeals exhausted (the state had insisted he was perfectly normal), Rector was set to be executed in January of 1992. At that point, without any legal remedies left, his only hope for reprieve was to be granted clemency by Governor Bill Clinton.

It was an inconvenient moment for Ricky Ray Rector’s life to depend on Bill Clinton’s mercy. As Rector’s execution date approached in 1992, Clinton was “fighting for his political life.” The New Hampshire Democratic primary was about to be held, and Clinton was facing a scandal that threatened to derail his presidential candidacy. An Arkansas woman named Gennifer Flowers had come forward to allege that she and the governor had engaged in a twelve-year affair, and that she had audio tapes to prove it. In a close race against Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas, Clinton was unsure whether he could withstand the heat from the Flowers allegations, and felt he could not afford to take political risks.

Clinton had also spent a great deal of energy trying to position himself as a “tough on crime” Democrat, in order to distinguish himself from previous generations of soft-hearted liberals. Clinton’s crime stance had been consciously cultivated back in Arkansas. Earlier in his political career, Clinton had lost a race against a “law and order” candidate, and those around him said he was determined not to make the same mistake twice. There was a sharp difference between Clinton’s attitude during his first term as governor from 1978–1980 (when he lost reelection), and that of his four subsequent terms from 1982 to 1992.

As one observer noted, “one almost metaphysical lesson [the loss] provided him was never to range, whatever his own impulses, too far beyond the standing disposition of the general populace.” So when Clinton returned to the governor’s mansion, he rid himself of any merciful inclinations he may have had toward convicted criminals. While in his first term, Clinton had commuted seventy prison sentences, in his ten subsequent years in office he would commute a total of only seven, a small fraction of those that had been approved for commutation by the state pardon board. That Clinton had gotten tougher was not just the impression of observers. A Clinton spokesman confirmed that the governor “had indeed changed some of his policies toward prison inmates.”

As Rector’s attorney explained, the new Clinton “would set new execution dates at just about every stage, every tick in the process of a case, though the parties were nowhere near exhausting their remedies.” By 1992, Clinton had set seventy execution dates for twenty different inmates, including four for Ricky Ray Rector alone. Even though many of these were stayed by the courts, setting them, according to Rector’s lawyer, “[enabled Clinton to say] ‘Look, see how many executions I’ve ordered.’”

Thus as the New Hampshire primary approached, Clinton was not oblivious to the fact that, as the New York Times reported, “many political experts feel a record of favoring the death penalty is a major plus for a Democratic Presidential candidate.”

As Rector’s execution approached, Jeff Rosenzweig, Rector’s attorney and an old friend of Clinton’s, was desperately trying to get in touch with Clinton. Rosenzweig was convinced that Clinton must not have understood what Rector was actually like, and believed that if he could just speak to Clinton, he would be able to clear up the misunderstanding. As Rosenzweig explained:

I doubted deeply if he had actually talked with anyone who really knew Rector and the actual condition he was in. He needed to hear an affirmation from somebody who actually knew Rector and whom he knew, hear it himself ear to ear, plainly, that this guy was . . . seriously, seriously mentally deficient, just no doubt about it.

Jeff Rosenzweig also wanted to tell Clinton that “the politics of it he should be aware of as well — that Rector had been convicted by an all-white jury, and this was something that just might come to waylay him down the road.”

But Rosenzweig’s repeated calls to the governor’s mansion were going unanswered. In the meantime, the records of the prison “death log” note Rector’s activity during the countdown to his execution: “6.46 AM: Inmate Rector began howling. 6.59 AM: Inmate Rector began dancing in his cell.” Soon after, Rector told a guard that “If you eat grass, lethal injection won’t kill you.”

Jeff Rosenzweig wasn’t alone in his desperate attempt to reach the governor. Other old Clinton friends were frantically begging Clinton to give Rector clemency. As the Guardian reported in 1993:

Others, close to Clinton, were making their own appeals to him. Mrs Freddie Nixon, wife of the pastor who had married the Clintons, had even written to Ricky on Death Row, and was particularly distraught. Dr. Douglas Brown, the psychiatrist, faxed the governor to say the case had been a “travesty” — far from being “competent,” Rector was the least competent individual he had ever evaluated. He got no reply. Some of Clinton’s staunchest admirers, aware of his compassion and warmth, confidently expected him to intervene. “Nobody could believe that he would go through with it,” says one. “You might as well execute a child.”

Even Jesse Jackson stepped in. “Now, Bill, just on a moral, humanitarian basis,” Jackson said to Clinton in a phone call, the execution should be stopped. Clinton responded by telling Jackson that “he’d been researching various ways to get around it, but it just couldn’t be done, there were doctors who’d said he was competent.” Jackson recalled that Clinton “said he’d be praying about it, though.”

Of course, Clinton was lying to Jackson when he said it “couldn’t be done” and that he was trying to find ways to get around it. In fact, Clinton had the full power to commute Rector’s sentence from death to life imprisonment. He had simply thus far chosen not to exercise his power to do so.

As Rector’s execution time drew closer, even the prison warden had become uncomfortable with the idea of executing Rector, with one observer saying the warden “seemed to be coming apart the closer the execution got.”

Finally, after explaining on live television that Clinton was not answering his calls, Rosenzweig received a call from Bill Clinton. Rosenzweig explained to Clinton that it was all a horrible misunderstanding, Rector was “a zombie — it couldn’t, it shouldn’t be done. He’s a child. It’s like killing a child.” Rosenzweig begged Clinton not to allow the execution to proceed. “His execution,” Rosenzweig said, “would be remembered as a disgrace to the state.” After listening patiently to what Rosenzweig had to say, Clinton “hung up with a non-committal pleasantry.”

Still, Rosenzweig believed Clinton couldn’t execute Rector, now that he had the facts. “I thought he just might not want to be seen as merciless,” Rosenzweig recollected.

Clinton refused to grant clemency. Rector was executed on January 24, 1992. It is unlikely he had any idea what was about to happen. When he had his last meal, Rector set the dessert aside for later, even though there wouldn’t be a later. And in a pitiful and poignant detail, the night before his execution, watching Clinton on television, Rector said that he planned to vote for him in November.

Clinton’s plan to appear “tough on crime” had worked. In the following months, the political value of Rector’s execution became abundantly clear. It knocked the law-and-order issue out of the campaign. One commentator said it showed Clinton was “a different sort of Democrat.” As another put it, “he had someone put to death who only had half a brain. You don’t find them any tougher than that.”

Or, as former prosecutor and Arkansas ACLU director Jay Jacobson said, “You can’t law-and-order Clinton . . . If you can kill Rector, you can kill anybody.” In the general election, the National Association of Police Organizations endorsed Clinton over Bush, and so did a law enforcement group in Bush’s home state of Texas. (In 1996, the Fraternal Order of Police would endorse Clinton’s reelection, with the group’s president saying that police officers “have never had a better friend in the White House than Bill Clinton.”)

The Rector execution would send a strong message of what it meant to be a “different sort” of Democrat. That Clinton was willing to allow this execution to proceed, despite the widespread pleas coming in from across the nation, was a notice about the direction in which he would take the Democratic Party and the nation in the years to come.