LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The top two officials for a judicial ethics panel removed themselves Tuesday from investigations involving an Arkansas judge who participated in an anti-death penalty demonstration the same day he effectively blocked executions in the state.
David Sachar, executive director of the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, and Emily White, the commission’s deputy director, announced they would recuse themselves from the cases involving Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, who lay on a cot outside the governor’s mansion last month after blocking the state from using a lethal injection drug. The panel is investigating Griffen as well as his complaint against the state Supreme Court over its decision to bar him from death penalty cases. Justices, who also lifted Griffen’s order on the execution drugs, referred the judge to the commission.
The recusal decision came at the recommendation of Howard Brill, a law professor at the University of Arkansas and former interim chief justice for the state Supreme Court, who Sachar and White had sought counsel from over the disqualification issue. White said there had not been a request for the two to step away from the cases. Brill cited several issues with the two simultaneously investigating complaints against and by Griffen.
“It is my belief that both of you are caught in an unacceptable dilemma with these competing allegations,” Brill wrote in a letter dated Friday. “Although public servants should be properly cautious to avoid any hint that they are shirking their duties, unique circumstances are present in this situation.”
The commission will be responsible for hiring special counsel for the cases involving Griffen.
Griffen has said he was portraying Jesus and participating in a Good Friday vigil when he lay on the cot. He was photographed wearing an anti-death penalty button and surrounded by people holding signs opposing Arkansas’ executions. He has called the investigation into him an attempt to punish him for exercising his First Amendment rights.
“Recusal is definitely warranted for the reasons stated by Professor Howard Brill, himself a former chief justice,” Mike Laux, an attorney for Griffen, said in a statement. “While this is the prudent course of action at this time, Judge Griffen and his legal team hope the JDDC will select fair and independent replacements to Mr. Sachar and Ms. White going forward.”
Arkansas put four inmates to death last month, the state’s first executions since 2005.
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