On Good Friday afternoon, Judge Wendell Griffen of the Sixth Judicial Circuit in Little Rock (Pulaski County), Ark., headed toward Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s mansion, where his congregation was about to begin a prayer vigil.
Earlier that afternoon, Judge Griffen had ruled on a routine property and contract law case that was assigned to his docket at the last minute. A pharmaceutical products distributor, McKesson Medical-Surgical, had requested a temporary restraining order claiming that the state of Arkansas had bought its product under false pretenses. The product in question was a medical paralytic drug called vecuronium bromide, and the state of Arkansas planned to use the drug to carry out a spate of rapid-succession executions of death row inmates, slated to begin three days later. McKesson opposed the plan, saying Arkansas had misled them about its intentions when purchasing the medical drug, and requested that the court immediately issue a temporary restraining order to prevent its drug from being disposed of in violation of its property rights.
Judge Griffen ruled in favor of McKesson’s property claim and issued a temporary restraining order, barring Arkansas officials from using or disposing of the vecuronium bromide. He scheduled a hearing for the earliest possible date convenient for all parties involved: the following Tuesday morning, about 14 hours after the state had intended to carry out its first execution. Then Griffen, who also presides as pastor of the New Millennium Church, changed out of his black judge’s robe, donned a beige outfit, and headed to church.
Griffen’s decision temporarily halted Arkansas’ breakneck execution schedule, but the case didn’t concern the constitutionality of the death penalty. Griffen later told me, “It was a basic property law question: did the person that filed the [temporary restraining order] have a rightful claim to their property, and was that claim in imminent danger of being lost forever by impending conduct of persons? Under Arkansas law, I was duty-bound to issue the temporary restraining order until I could convene everyone in front of me and we could have a full hearing on the subject.”
In downtown Little Rock, outside the Governor’s Mansion, Griffen convened with his congregants from the New Millennium Church. The church’s tagline is “inclusive, progressive, and welcoming followers of Jesus Christ.” As a pastor, Griffen’s sermons focus on the loving embrace of a tolerant God. He has preached against “the racist, sexist, materialistic, patriarchal, militaristic, imperialistic, homophobic, and xenophobic ways that have defined so much of organized religion.” Griffen has also denounced mass incarceration; he and his congregation largely oppose the death penalty.
On Easter Sunday in 2016, Griffen had delivered a sermon on resurrection. From the pulpit he intoned, “Resurrection is about God raising Jesus, and through Jesus, showing us that death and every other oppressive force cannot confine or define what God’s love can and wants to accomplish in our lives.”
This Good Friday was different for New Millennium Church, which usually holds their vigil in a sanctuary. Instead, Griffen said, the church wanted to "show our solidarity with Jesus” and, like Jesus, with the inmates scheduled for death at the command of Gov. Hutchinson.
At the Good Friday prayer vigil outside the Governor’s Mansion, members of the New Millennium Church sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Amazing Grace.” Nearby anti-death penalty protesters, gathered for a separate action, joined the congregants in singing and called on the Republican governor to cancel the looming executions. They held signs that read, “Death Penalty only creates more victims,” “Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders,” and “Capital punishment killed Jesus.”
“Our prayer vigil affirmed our conviction that in Jesus, God identifies with and loves persons who are marginalized, including persons who are convicted of committing murder," Griffen said.
During the prayer vigil, Griffen lay on a makeshift cot, lifelessly still for an hour and a half. He later said the protest was a spiritual act, not a political one. “We scheduled the prayer vigil at the Governor's Mansion because Jesus, the leader of our faith, was put to death by order of a Roman emperor,” he said. “So, we thought it was appropriate to take our Good Friday observance to the Governor's Mansion in solidarity with Jesus.”
But local press snapped photos of the powerful image – the stately African-American pastor clad in drab beige, surrounded by anti-death penalty protesters and his congregation – and concluded that Griffen was impersonating a condemned death row inmate. The images soon went viral, and unbeknownst to Griffen, sparked a firestorm in the Arkansas legislature.
After the prayer vigil, Griffen returned home to rest before the upcoming Easter weekend activities. He turned on the evening news and was shocked by what he heard.
“They said I blocked the executions,” Griffen said. “I didn’t block the executions; I simply said that you can’t dispose of this drug” before a full hearing.
But it was too late — the image of Griffen at the Good Friday prayer vigil had already flashed across TVs and, Griffen said, “legislators went ballistic.” Multiple state officials accused Griffen of subverting the will of juries and ruling on personal beliefs rather than the letter of the law.
In the days following, local lawmakers suggested Judge Griffen had no business sitting on the McKesson case because he had attended the anti-death penalty prayer rally. Republican State Sen.
Trent Garner told local Fox 16 news, “Making a public statement, a protest, in front of the Governor’s Mansion is unacceptable. It’s a disgrace to the judiciary system.” He would later spearhead a campaign to impeach Griffen. Garner’s office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this article.
Republican Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge similarly denounced Griffen’s participation in the prayer vigil and called into question his impartiality. She told KTHV, “Those actions are inappropriate, and that’s why we have asked the Supreme Court to vacate Judge Griffen’s temporary restraining order, and that it is inappropriate for Judge Griffen to be on this case.”
Rutledge and her staff successfully filed motions with the Arkansas State Supreme Court to remove Griffen from the case, and to vacate the McKesson ruling. A new judge was assigned to consider the case — but that judge, Alice Gray, ultimately upheld Griffen’s ruling by issuing a temporary restraining order, which Griffen said is proof the McKesson case really was a matter of mundane contract law after all.
But for Rutledge, who was a surrogate for Donald Trump during the presidential campaign, it wasn't about this singular case. The attorney general further petitioned to remove Griffen from all death penalty-related cases. On Easter Monday, three days after the vigil, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted Rutledge her request, writing in its two-page order that, “Judges should maintain the dignity of judicial office at all times, and avoid both impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in their professional and personal lives.”
“To protect the integrity of the judicial system this court has a duty to ensure that all are given a fair and impartial tribunal. We find it necessary to immediately reassign all cases in the Fifth Division that involve the death penalty or the state's execution protocol, whether civil or criminal.”
The court also took the highly unusual step of referring Griffen to the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission to consider whether he violated the Code of Judicial Conduct.
Rutledge spokesman Judd Deere responded to repeated requests for an interview with an email, writing, “No comment at this time.”
Griffin says the unusual behavior of Attorney General Rutledge and the Arkansas Supreme Court reveal how dangerous it is to appear opposed to the death penalty in the Deep South, even in a personal capacity.
Today, Judge Griffen is not only barred from considering death row cases but also faces impeachment proceedings. Sen. Garner is spearheading the effort, issuing a statement saying: “I am calling for the Arkansas House of Representatives to bring an article of impeachment against Judge Wendell Griffen. He should never again be allowed to hold office of any sort in Arkansas.”
Griffen’s attorney, Mike Laux, says the level of political retaliation against Griffen is unprecedented and may have racist undertones.
“In recent years, white judges have been found guilty of bribery in cases over which they preside [Judge Mike Maggio], have been caught with 20 years of photographs of nude and partially nude male arrestees and prisoners on their computer [Judge Joseph Boeckmann], and have led police on reckless, drunk-driving vehicle pursuits ending in crashes [Judge William Pearson],” he told me. “These judges were never threatened with impeachment.”
Laux rejects suggestions that his client acted inappropriately. “Judges are human beings who have positions and values,” he said of Griffen’s choice to participate in the vigil. “They take an oath to separate those beliefs from their job, following the law.”
He also noted a double standard among legislators who wish to empower judges to express some values, such as pro-life stances, but discourage others.
Arkansas executed four men in April, despite widespread outcry from clergy members, human rights advocates, and concerned citizens across the country. After the first executions took place on April 20th, Griffen wrote on his blog, “I am struck by the moral and ethical inconsistency of people who insist that justice requires society to kill people who are condemned because they killed others.”
There is no doubt that Judge Griffen opposes the death penalty as a matter of faith, and believes it is antithetical to Jesus’ teachings of love and mercy. But Griffen vigorously denies his faith impedes his ability to dispassionately and impartially serve on the bench.
“As a judge, I'm not required to jettison my faith in order to do my job. And, as a judge, my faith didn’t prevent me from doing my job and doing it properly,” he said.
“I followed the law in another case [on March 28] involving the death penalty, where I refused to allow an amended complaint to challenge the Arkansas death penalty case because the Arkansas Supreme Court had said the death penalty inmates could no longer challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty,” Griffen said in his first extensive broadcast interview on the TV news program Democracy Now!
“I followed the law in that case, even though I oppose the death penalty,” he said.
Griffen is still flummoxed how a ruling on a routine property case coupled with participation in his church’s Good Friday prayer vigil put him in the eye of a political storm — one that may now cost him his job. But he suspects the issue goes deeper than whether or not he impartially followed the law.
“I've been the target of a number of attacks … because I have made socially progressive statements in following my faith that folks just don't like: support for raising the minimum wage; opposition to the war in Iraq; opposition to demonize immigrants and LGBT people…” Griffen said. “I'm not naive enough to believe that people aren't going to be gunning for me no matter what I do.”
Griffen then added: “I stopped jumping when people said ‘Boo’ a long time ago.”