Missed Debate Question: Where Do You Stand on the Killing of Rickey Ray Rector?

Bill and Hillary Clinton at a St Louis campaign rally in 1992, Bill Clinton's final day of campaigning in St Louis, Missouri
Bill and Hillary Clinton at a St Louis campaign rally in 1992, Bill Clinton's final day of campaigning in St Louis, Missouri (Photo by Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)

The PBS debate moderators missed a golden opportunity to ask Hillary and Bernie a crucial question: What did they think about the execution of Rickey Ray Rector in 1992?

This is not ancient history. Rather, it is a vital case study in political morality. This life and death decision reveals crucial views on crime, punishment, ethics and political opportunism.

Since Bernie opposes the death penalty, we know how he would respond. To be fair, it's a much tougher question for Hillary, both because she supports the death penalty and because it happened on Bill Clinton's watch. She was there when the issue was discussed and decided.

Did she approve? Does she still approve?

The sad case of Rickey Ray Rector

In 1981 Rickey Ray Rector, a black man, shot Arthur Criswell in a Conway, Arkansas dance hall over a $3 cover charge dispute. A few days later at his mother's home, Rector said he would turn himself in, but only to Officer Bob Martin whom he knew.

Officer Martin was called by Rector's family to take him to jail. When Martin turned his back for a moment to talk with the family, Rector shot him dead.

Rector then went outside and shot himself in the temple. But he didn't die. Instead he was basically lobotomized, becoming mentally incompetent. (How incompetent? Even though he could talk, he had no coherent understanding of the world around him including the concept of death. His IQ was measured at 63. When he was served his last meal before execution, he asked if the guards could hold his dessert until later.)

The Rickey Ray Rector case developed into constitutional test of cruel and unusual punishment. Does it violate the constitutional to execute a mentally incompetent person? The Supreme Court chose not to hear his appeal and the execution schedule continued.

As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton had the power to execute Rector or commute his sentence to life-imprisonment. At the time, January 25, 1992, he also was running for president. So just before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, he flew back to his home state to make sure the execution took place. It was gory. It took 50 minutes to find a vein.

Why did Bill Clinton execute Rector?

Jeff Rosenweig, a Clinton friend and one of Rector's lawyer said at the time:

"My personal opinion is that in his heart of hearts he's against the death penalty. In my opinion, this is a very easy way to show you're tough on crime."

Mike Gauldin, a spokesperson for Clinton at that time said "the Governor had indeed changed some of his policies toward prison inmates since he returned to office in 1983. In his first term, he commuted the sentences of 70 inmates convicted of a wide variety of crimes. Since 1983, he has commuted seven."

Crime issues would become very important to Clinton's run for the presidency. It was generally thought that Governor Dukakis damaged his own presidential campaign when during a TV interview he said he would not even execute a murderer who had raped and killed his own wife.

In 1992, the New York Times reported, "It is clear that many political experts feel a record of favoring the death penalty is a major plus for a Democratic Presidential candidate."

Other analysts suggest more opportunist reasons.

"In 1979, he had commuted the sentence of a mentally ill, convicted murderer, James Surridge, 73. Less than a year after his release, Surridge committed another murder. The case later came to be known as Bill Clinton's own Willie Horton," reports Politico. He may have lost his 1980 bid for the Arkansas governorship because of it.

Some also claim, that killing of Rickey Ray was timed to shift media attention from the emerging Jenifer Flowers scandal that threaten to sink his presidential run in New Hampshire.

Tough on Crime Legacy

During his two terms as president, Bill Clinton continued his hard-line position on crime. As a result, the prison population more than doubled. The number of youth housed in adult prison also doubled. By the time he left office the US had the largest prison population in the entire world.

In an article entitled "Hillary Does not Deserve Black People's Votes," Michelle Alexander offers a stinging assessment:

"Bill Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. ... He supported the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for crack versus powder cocaine, which produced staggering racial injustice in sentencing and boosted funding for drug-law enforcement.

Clinton championed the idea of a federal "three strikes" law in his 1994 State of the Union address and, months later, signed a $30 billion crime bill that created dozens of new federal capital crimes, mandated life sentences for some three-time offenders, and authorized more than $16 billion for state prison grants and the expansion of police forces.

... Human Rights Watch reported that in seven states, African Americans constituted 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison, even though they were no more likely than whites to use or sell illegal drugs. Prison admissions for drug offenses reached a level in 2000 for African Americans more than 26 times the level in 1983."

What does any of this have to do with Hillary?

Bill's actions as President are not current campaign issues, except as Hillary uses them to validate her own experience. What did she learn from the Rickey Ray execution and the tough-on-crime Clinton administration?

We know that Hillary changed her position on capital punishment. When she first came to Arkansas, she worked to undermine the legality of executions. She stopped doing so when Bill became the state's Attorney General.

We know from the February 4th debate that she still believes in state executions: "I do, for very limited, particularly heinous crimes I believe [the death penalty] is an appropriate punishment"

But we do not know where Hillary stands on the case of Rickey Ray Rector.

Key Questions for Hillary to answer:

At the time, did Hillary disagree with Bill's decision to execute Rickey Rae?

Did she challenge Bill's presidential incarceration policies? Or did she consider them justified, even though those policies differentially harmed people of color?

Most importantly, is Hillary now willing to say publically that the execution of Rickey Rae Rector was morally wrong?

How she addresses this troubling episode would speak volumes about whether she deserves our support.

Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute in New York is currently working on a national economic educational campaign with unions and community organization. His latest book, Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice serves as a text for that campaign. All proceeds from the book go to support this educational campaign