Rickey Ray Rector (Execution of)

Rickey (or Ricky) Ray Rector was the third death row inmate to be executed in Arkansas after the reinstatement of capital punishment in the state in 1990. He was executed despite concerns over his ability to understand the difference between life and death or the consequences of his actions.

On March 22, 1981, Rector entered Tommy’s Old Fashioned Home-style Restaurant in Conway (Faulkner County), where he had previously been denied entrance to a private party. Rector fired several shots, killing Arthur Criswell and wounding two others. Two days later, Rector entered his mother’s home while the police were there questioning his mother and sister. Rector shot and killed Robert Martin, a Conway police officer, before running outside and shooting himself in the head. The bullet entered his brain, and efforts by surgeons to remove the bullet resulted in a lobotomy. Rector was permanently brain damaged.

Rector was tried separately for his two murders. The first charge was first-degree murder of Arthur Criswell and two counts of first-degree battery. Rector was found competent to stand trial despite his brain damage and his legal team’s assertions that Rector could not comprehend what was happening to him. At his trial for the murder of Criswell, Rector was sentenced to life in prison. Later, on November 11, 1982, Rector was sentenced to die for the capital murder of Robert Martin.

Immediately, Rector’s lawyer, John Jewell, petitioned for habeas corpus, claiming that Rector’s mental state had so far deteriorated that he was not fit for execution. The habeas corpus petition was denied, but the district court recognized that executing a mentally deficient criminal was against both federal and state law. In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that executing someone who could not understand the motivation or implications behind the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment. Also, in 1987, Arkansas had passed a statute that prevented the state from executing insane people. The court’s job was to determine whether or not Rector could understand why he was being executed as well as to determine if he was legally insane. On both issues, they found him to be sufficiently competent for execution.

Jewell continued to appeal Rector’s case on the grounds of mental deficiency, and Rector underwent three separate mental evaluations. However, all evaluations found him to be competent. The first evaluation was in 1982 at his initial appeal, then again in 1989 as his appeals continued. His final evaluation was in December 1991, when his legal team made a last effort to appeal for clemency due to Rector’s mental status. A clemency panel heard Rector’s appeal before sending their recommendation to then-governor Bill Clinton, who would make the final decision. At the clemency appeal, inmates testified on behalf of Rector. Inmates recalled that Rector would bark, howl, and laugh wildly in his cell. They spoke of his paranoia and fearfulness. One inmate claimed that Rector was terrified to leave his cell. The inmates also stated that Rector could control himself somewhat in the presence of law officers because he was afraid of drawing their attention or anger; therefore, he might appear to be saner in public than he actually was. Rector’s sister testified that Rector’s entire demeanor and personality had changed after the self-inflicted brain damage. Despite these statements, the clemency panel voted against Rector’s appeal on January 16, 1992. On January 22, 1992, Federal District Judge Henry Woods turned down an appeal for a stay of execution, ruling, “No one who has considered this claim and applied the prevailing legal standard has concluded that he is incompetent to be executed.”

Rector’s appeal for clemency took place during Clinton’s presidential campaign—specifically during the New Hampshire primary. Clinton presumably wanted to present himself as someone who was firm on crime and capital punishment in order to garner more votes. Rector’s execution, therefore, became quite important to the candidate, though the eleven-year controversy over Rector’s case had already guaranteed that Clinton’s decision would be highly public. In keeping with this strong stance on capital punishment, Clinton not only denied Rector’s appeal for clemency but flew home to Arkansas in order to oversee the execution personally.

Rector’s last meal consisted of fried chicken, steak, and pecan pie. According to Marshall Frady, writing for the New Yorker, when Rector had finished eating, he set aside a piece of the pie and told the guards that he would like to save it for later. Rector’s obvious inability to comprehend the fact that he was about to be executed unnerved a number of the prison officials.

Rector’s execution was scheduled for 9:15 p.m. on January 24, 1992. However, the execution was delayed by more than fifty minutes because the medical technicians were unable to find a useable vein. Rector attempted to help them find a vein that would work, and witnesses stated that he seemed to be innocently cheerful, as though he believed that the technicians were performing a simple, everyday procedure. Spectators who waited behind a drawn curtain counted eight moans of pain during the process of finding the vein. Several of the prison officials doubted that the execution should proceed, but at 10:09 p.m., Rector was executed by lethal injection. Later, at least one of the officials involved who helped with the execution resigned from his position, citing the upsetting experience of Rector’s execution as the reason.

Rector’s execution was controversial on both the state and national level. As Clinton moved on to the presidency, he faced many criticisms regarding his decision in the Rector case from people who believed that Rector was unqualified for execution. Rector’s case demonstrated that, though both Arkansas and the United States had legislation protecting the insane from execution, there was still debate as to what constituted legal insanity. On June 20, 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Atkins v. Virginia ruled that the “executions of mentally retarded criminals are ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.”

For additional information:
Applebome, Peter. “The 1992 Campaign: Death Penalty; Arkansas Execution Raises Questions on Governor’s Politics.” New York Times, January 25, 1992. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/25/us/1992-campaign-death-penalty-arkansas-execution-raises-questions-governor-s.html (accessed February 2, 2022).

Dugan, Tracie. “Death Row Inmates Testify about Ricky Ray Rector’s Actions.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 15, 1992, pp. 12A.

———. “State Says Central Issue in Rector’s Appeal Settled 2 Years Ago.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 13, 1992, pp. 1, 5B.

Dugan Tracie, and Noel Oman. “Clemency Vote Goes Against Rector: Parole Board Sends Decision on to Clinton.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 16, 1992, pp. 1, 9A.

Farmer, Joe. “Rector, 40, Executed for Officer’s Slaying.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 25, 1992, pp. 1, 5A.

Hitchens, Christopher. No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton. London: Verso, 1999.

Oman, Noel. “Execution Won’t Derail Clinton, Analysts Say.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 16, 1992, p. 11A.

Rhodes, Larry, and Jay Meisel. “Ricky Ray Rector Applies for Executive Clemency.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 4, 1992, pp. 1, l1A.

Laura Choate
Conway, Arkansas


    I recalled this case during a conversation about “charisma” in politicians. I didn’t even realize until reading this article that Bill Clinton was running for president at that time! When I DID hear of this a few years ago, I was sickened. I have a mentally retarded 29-year-old son. Thank God the Supreme Court ruled [executing people like him] to be unconstitutional! Sad that it took this man’s death to get that protection for these folks.

    Gail M Coleman Cedar Rapids, IA