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JUSTICE : Will Clinton Again Oppose Executions? Old Pal Says Maybe : A death penalty supporter, the President may face clemency requests. Friend says he once was against the punishment.

January 31, 1995|MARK I. PINSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — They were two old friends talking on the telephone--more than 20 years of personal history behind them and facing the gruesome reality of the death penalty. As they spoke, a third man's life hung in the balance.

Rickey Ray Rector, a poor black man who barked like a dog and thought he'd be back for dessert after his execution, was dead within hours. Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was back on the road to the White House. Attorney Jeff Rosenzweig returned to his battle against capital punishment, wondering about how much people can change.

Before too long, legal experts say, a U.S. President again will have to decide whether to block an execution. And the 42-year-old Rosenzweig, Arkansas's best-known anti-death penalty crusader, provides an insight into what Clinton may do if he is that President.

At first glance, Clinton's often-stated support for capital punishment suggests that any appeals that reach his White House would face the same fate as Rector's.

As governor, Rosenzweig said, Clinton set dates for execution well in advance of when he was required to, and he refused to support a hike in the $1,000 fee limit on private attorneys assigned to capital cases. Clinton did not commute a single death sentence, allowing four convicted killers to be executed during his terms.

In the most controversial of these cases, Clinton left the New Hampshire campaign trail in January, 1992, to preside over Rector's execution. Rector was convicted of killing a bar patron and a police officer in 1981, and then shooting himself in the head--a wound doctors testified left him effectively lobotomized, with an I.Q. of 63.

So, is it actually possible that President Clinton would react any differently than Gov. Clinton to pleas to block execution? Rosenzweig thinks he might, because once upon a time--before he was a practicing politician--Clinton was an ardent death penalty opponent.

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Rosenzweig, who grew up in the President's hometown of Hot Springs, Ark., has known Clinton most of his life. His physician father once treated the teen-age Clinton for pneumonia. Bright and idealistic, Rosenzweig and Clinton gravitated to one another in 1969.

"We became fairly good friends that summer," Rosenzweig said. "We stayed in decent touch for four or five years."

The two young men shared many opinions, including opposition to the death penalty.

"He was against it," Rosenzweig recalled. Clinton felt "that there were a number of problems with the legal system and its inherent racism. He felt the risk of error, the chance of the death penalty being given for an improper reason, was too great."

Just as Clinton had left Hot Springs for the wider world of Georgetown, Oxford and Yale Law School, Rosenzweig later departed for Princeton and Southern Methodist University Law School. But when each returned to Arkansas, their career paths diverged.

Teaching at the University of Arkansas Law School in Fayetteville, Clinton continued his opposition to capital punishment as he launched his political career. In the early 1970s, while teaching with her husband, Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote an appellate legal brief credited with saving a retarded man, Henry Giles, from execution in Arkansas.

However, as Clinton's political star rose, his opposition to capital punishment shifted to qualified support. After his election as Arkansas attorney general in 1976, it became Clinton's job to defend the state in death penalty appeals. In the late 1980s, Clinton told a high school audience that he believed the death penalty was not wrong, even though there was no compelling evidence that it was an effective deterrent.

During this same period, Rosenzweig was emerging as the state's chief death penalty litigator, at one point serving as president of the state's criminal defense lawyers association and adjunct professor of law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Yet Rosenzweig was reluctant to criticize Clinton's transformation to a death penalty advocate.

"I am not going to say that his position was . . . changed as a result of expediency," said the burly, bearded lawyer. "On the other hand, he obviously could not have gotten elected to a state office in Arkansas being perceived as being against (the death penalty). . . . We drifted apart some when he really went into elective politics."

Rosenzweig, who was named one of 10 "Arkansas Heroes" by Arkansas Times magazine in 1990, said he continued to support Clinton with his votes and contributions, and he still considered the governor his friend.

All that changed in the final hours of Rickey Ray Rector's life.

As Rector, 40, moved closer to execution, Rosenzweig joined the team of lawyers trying to save him. In rejecting Rector's final appeal, which was based on his inability to understand the meaning of his execution, the Arkansas Supreme Court suggested that the issue was best addressed in the form of a clemency appeal to the governor. The state appeals board agreed.

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