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Ethics Complaint Dropped Against Arkansas Judge Over Execution Protest

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen taking part in an anti-death penalty demonstration in front of the Arkansas Governor's Mansion in April 2017.
Brian Chilson
Arkansas Times

An ethics complaint has been dismissed against Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen for taking part in a death penalty demonstration in April 2017 on the same day he blocked the state from using an execution drug. Now Griffen is demanding he be given back the power to consider death penalty cases.

Marie-Bernarde Miller, counsel for the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, said Wednesday that too much time had passed between the complaint being filed and the case being heard. Two out-of-state attorneys who had been appointed to prosecute the case had a series of outside issues that led to repeated delays. A trial was scheduled to begin Thursday, but an attorney for Griffen said he learned Sunday that the hearing had again been delayed.

Miller said a written order would be released within a few days and that the commission’s dismissal was not based on the merits of the case. Griffen had faced the possibility of being removed from the bench.

Griffen was photographed outside the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion lying on a cot – similar to the appearance of a condemned inmate strapped to a gurney – wearing an anti-death penalty button and surrounded by people holding signs opposing executions. Hours earlier he had sided with drug distributor McKesson Medical-Surgical that didn’t want vercuronium bromide it had provided to be used in eight lethal injections scheduled by the state to take place that month.

In an interview with KUAR News on Wednesday, Griffen said, "I am glad that the charges that nobody has been willing to take responsibility for are now shown for what they have always been: baseless, cowardly, malicious and utterly political."

Griffen said he had a First Amendment right to take part in the demonstration and that his personal beliefs did not influence his ruling. He thanked his attorneys, family, friends and court staff for supporting him during the two year investigation.

"This whole saga has never been about my ethical conduct or the correctness of the legal ruling I made on April 14, 2017 when I granted a temporary restraining order that ordered the return of property that had been wrongfully obtained and wrongfully withheld and ordered to be preserved and not disposed of until I had a full evidentiary hearing," Griffen said.

His decision would be overturned and four of the executions carried out.

After the complaint was filed against Griffen, the Arkansas Supreme Court stripped him of his power to consider cases involving the death penalty. Griffen said Wednesday that if that power is not restored he will file a lawsuit against the state’s high court.

"This is not over," Griffen said. "Now the suspicion is off. Now there are no charges, there is no suspicion and therefore there is no excuse for the Supreme Court of Arkansas to continue to bar me from hearing and deciding cases involving the death penalty and the method of execution. And so I am calling on the Supreme Court of Arkansas now to immediately reinstate those powers and if not, I’m coming."

An email seeking comment from Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Kemp did not get a response. Phone messages left in the offices of two other justices were not returned.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.