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Judge Wendell Griffen on a Life Fighting for Justice, from Protesting Death Penalty to Backing Mumia

Web ExclusiveDecember 14, 2022
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Wendell Griffen, a judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit of Arkansas, 5th Division, has become a prominent voice calling for a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Griffen will retire this month after 24 years on the bench and a career that has included speaking out against the death penalty and the War in Iraq. Griffen is also the Pastor of New Millennium Church and author of “The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Part 2 of our interview with the Arkansas circuit Judge Wendell Griffen.

After 41 years in prison, most of it on death row, this Friday, the journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal faces what could be his last chance for a new trial to consider newly discovered evidence that casts doubt on his 1982 conviction for the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner. And this judge has weighed on this case.

Mumia Abu-Jamal’s lawyers say evidence in boxes discovered in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office by DA Larry Krasner in 2019 show his trial was tainted by judicial bias and police and prosecutorial misconduct, like withholding of evidence, bribing or coercing witnesses to lie, and more.

Yes, a prominent voice calling for a new trial and for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal is Judge Wendell Griffen, a judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit of Arkansas, 5th Division. He spent more than 10 years as a judge on the Arkansas state Court of Appeals. He’ll retire this month after 24 years on the bench and a career that’s included speaking out against the death penalty and the War in Iraq. Judge Griffen is also the pastor of New Millennium Church and the author of The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope.

Judge Griffen, thanks so much for staying with us for Part 2 of this conversation. In Part 1, we talked about why you feel Mumia Abu-Jamal, after 41 years, should be freed. But I wanted to ask you now about the significance of you, as a sitting judge, a trial judge, a trial judge like the judge who will be hearing this case, deciding this case on Friday — have decided to weigh in. How unusual is that?

JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: I don’t know how unusual it is. I don’t really think about whether it’s unusual. I think about whether or not those of us who have been given the responsibility and the opportunity to think and act concerning justice have an obligation to speak up when we see something. As the late Representative John Lewis said, “When you see something, say something. And when you see good trouble, get into it.” Because this is one of those good trouble moments, if I can say so, where those of us who know what the law requires, like myself, who know what our precedents are, have an obligation to say, “Wait a minute. This man has been wronged. Our law requires that his wrong be addressed.”

And we have history. We have precedents that speak to this. Here the precedents are, and Judge Lucretia Clemons, who sits in the same kind of position within the commonwealth of Pennsylvania as I do in Arkansas, has — is governed by the same precedents, the same cases. The same Supreme Court cases that I would consider if the same kind of issue was before me in Little Rock, Arkansas, are binding on her in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And so, I don’t think about how unusual it is. I think about why shouldn’t I. And I think about, “Wait a minute. If we don’t speak up, what are we saying about ourselves, and what are we saying about our commitment to justice?”

AMY GOODMAN: Wendell Griffen, you are an Arkansas circuit judge. You’re retiring at the end of this year after 24 years on the bench. How unusual is it in Arkansas for there to be an African American judge on the Court of Appeals, now trial judge? And talk about what motivated you in your career to become a judge.

JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: Well, I was motivated to become a judge, Amy, by the racism, the injustice that I saw, that I experienced as a child growing up in rural southwest Arkansas, as a Black child of wonderful parents. My father was a World War II-era veteran. I have relatives who were military veterans. My parents were wonderful, devout people who paid their taxes and loved the country. But we didn’t have the same freedoms. I had hand-me-down books. I went to segregated schools, from the time I started school until 1965. Remember, Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1964. It was 11 years later before I went to an integrated school or desegregated school. And the nearest desegregated school was two miles from my house. I saw the bus drive by every day my house. And until 1965, I didn’t even know where that school was, because of segregation. So, that gave me a passion for justice.

Law gave me a chance to exercise that passion constructively, because injustice causes people to be angry and resentful, can cause bitterness. Fortunately, law gave me a constructive out; otherwise, I could have been a very angry and destructive kind of person. Law and faith gave me my salvation.

Judge — being a judge, the road to become a judge was interesting. Before 1992, there were no Black elected trial judges in Arkansas. And we literally had to sue Bill Clinton. We had to sue Bill Clinton, who was the governor of the state of Arkansas, to get that done. And I am in one of the seats that was created out of that lawsuit, in the lawsuit named Hunt v. Clinton. And that decree gave me the — gave the office that I now hold. I began as an appeals court judge appointed by Governor Jim Guy Tucker, the governor who succeeded Bill Clinton when Bill Clinton became president. And I thank Governor Tucker for appointing me to the Court of Appeals. I served on the Court of Appeals for 12 years, almost 13 years, from 1996 through 2008.

But I was defeated in 2008 for reelection because I opposed openly the War in Iraq. I spoke openly about the injustice about how Hurricane Katrina was handled. I spoke openly about the injustice towards people who are LGBTQ and immigrants. And that kind of talk was not popular. And it still isn’t popular. And it’s unusual for a judge. But again, I’m also a judge and I’m a pastor. I believe that justice should not be blind, and also justice should not be gagged. And so I spoke openly about it. Off the bench, people didn’t like that, so I was defeated in 2008.

I taught law school for a couple of years, and then I was encouraged to run for this seat I now hold. I won election in 2010 and began serving as a trial judge in 2011.

AMY GOODMAN: Going back again in time — we’re speaking to you at your home in Little Rock, and, of course, Little Rock is known in legal history, as the Little Rock high school that was forced to integrate after the U.S. Supreme Court decision saying that segregation by race was unconstitutional. That was '57. What about your education through the years? And you mention your parents in your home. You've got the poll taxes on the wall?

JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: I grew up in Delight, Arkansas, in rural southwest Arkansas. Delight, Arkansas, also is where Glen Campbell was from. And it’s about 95 miles southwest of Little Rock. I am looking in my home study at my parents’ 1963 poll tax receipt. I keep it framed. After my mother passed away in 2002, my sons and I were going through her papers, and she had kept her and dad’s poll tax receipt from 1963. And my sons, Elliott and Martin, said, “Dad, we need to frame that.” So I framed it with their picture, and I see it every day in my home study.

AMY GOODMAN: Judge Griffen, for people who don’t know, explain what a poll tax is.

JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: Poll, P-O-L-L, it’s a tax one had to pay in order to vote. Literally, it was a tax one had to pay. And in 1963, I recall helping pick cotton so we could help my grandmother, my mother’s mother, get the money to pay her poll tax so she could vote. My parents had to pay their poll taxes. And so, understand, that was literally a requirement before one could vote. These were citizens. My father was a World War II veteran. My grandmother had a son, my mother’s brother, who had been a veteran of World War II. But they literally had to pay money to vote.

And when people don’t think about that, they don’t understand that when you talk about voter suppression in 2022, and you talk about voter ID, and you talk about changing the rules of voting, that’s not very far removed. There’s a straight line, as a matter of fact, between that and the poll taxes that my mom and dad had to pay in order to vote in 1963.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about when poll taxes were struck down, made illegal.

JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: They were struck down in 1964 by a U.S. Supreme Court decision. And that, again, it was the United States Supreme Court, judges — judges, and I will say this, nine white judges, nine white male judges, to include one judge, Hugo Black, who had been a member of the KKK in Alabama. And so, I think we have to keep our sense of history in mind, that this democracy that we have is precious, not just because of what happened in 1776, but because of everything that has happened since then along the way.

And when I look at my dad and mom’s poll tax receipts, when I look at their pictures, I think about the fact that the democracy that we have is fragile. And I remember what happened on January 6, 2021. I realize that the democracy that we have is not a guarantee; it is a trust. It is a trust. And we must protect that trust with our lives and with our loyalty. It’s more than just standing up and putting your hand over your heart when the Pledge of Allegiance is said or when the national anthem is sung. It’s speaking up when we see something wrong, and fighting it.

AMY GOODMAN: Judge Wendell Griffen, we last spoke to you in May of 2017 after you participated in an anti-death penalty protest outside the Governor’s Mansion in Arkansas, organized by your church to mark Good Friday. You were almost removed from the bench for this, and ultimately barred from hearing death penalty cases. Can you talk about exactly what you did? I’m looking at a photograph right now of you on a kind of gurney.

JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: Well, it’s not a gurney. It’s actually a cot. It’s actually a camp cot that I still have. I keep that cot in my study at the church. It was a cot that I took from the church. And I took a lasso that my father had. We lived on a farm; my father had a lasso, handling cattle. And I had myself tied to that cot to simulate a person condemned to die.

Good Friday, as you know, is sacred, is one of the High Holy Days for people in the religion of Jesus. It was the date on which Jesus was crucified after having been sentenced by Pontius Pilate, who was the governor of Palestine at the time, the Roman governor. Palestine was an occupied territory. And so, our congregation thought it would be fitting that instead of having an a sequestered Good Friday service in our church, we would take our faith to the streets, and to the street right outside of the Governor’s Mansion, where the governor of Arkansas was about to preside over the death of eight, eight of God’s children, simply because the death-dealing drugs, the lethal injection drugs, were about to expire. And so they decided to rush up the clock so we could not have the drugs expire without killing people. And so, we decided that’s the way for us to observe Good Friday. Jesus, the leader of our faith, was executed by a governor. We would do the same thing and protest. And so, that was the incentive for it.

We sang. People of the congregation sang hymns, and I lay on that cot for 90 minutes, waiting for that 90-minute period to end, to symbolically show our solidarity with Jesus and also show the solidarity with the religion of Jesus with all those who live with their backs against the wall and who are oppressed by our criminal punishment system.

AMY GOODMAN: It was Governor Hutchinson at the time?

JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: It was Governor Asa Hutchinson at the time, who it looks like he’s getting ready to run for president.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the response to what you did, and how you had to fight really to remain on the bench, from laying out on that cot in your protest against the death penalty.

JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: The response was immediate, Amy. Good Friday was, of course, the Saturday before Easter. Holy Saturday came. We had Holy Saturday, Seder, at the church. We had our Easter Sunday service at the church. And then, Monday, I’m on the bench dealing with my Monday docket, and one of my staff members gives me a note: “You have been removed from all criminal cases involving the death penalty” — not just criminal cases involving the death penalty, even civil cases involving the administration of lethal injection for execution in Arkansas. I’m the only judge in the history of Arkansas and the only judge, in my knowledge, to the history of the country who has been permanently barred from presiding over cases I am legally qualified to, without having been found guilty of doing anything to justify being barred.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain further, because we’re not exactly talking about the death penalty, in the case you’re talking about, but the drugs that were being used, that were going to be injected to kill the people on death row.

JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: Exactly. I was barred because I had that prayer vigil, and I was presiding over a case that had been filed by the distributor of the lethal injection drugs, who alleged and presented sworn affidavits that those drugs had been procured by the state of Arkansas by fraud. And so they brought what essentially was a replevin lawsuit seeking to get the return of their property. And they filed a motion for a temporary restraining order. All of the grounds for temporary restraining order were in their favor. I entered a temporary restraining order on Good Friday. And by Monday, the Supreme Court removed me from the case, because they wanted to make sure that I wasn’t on that case. Ironically, another judge was appointed to succeed me, and she found that the temporary restraining order was appropriate. So, two judges found it was appropriate. The Supreme Court didn’t remove her. They just vacated the temporary restraining order.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you still preside over murder cases —


AMY GOODMAN: — but not murder cases where the death penalty comes into play?

JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: That’s exactly right. Ironically, there was a case that was qualified for the death penalty filed last two years, and it landed in my court. And the attorney general of Arkansas wanted to try to get me off that case, but the prosecutor and the defense counsel objected. They did not want me off the case. They said, “There’s no reason to have him removed from the case. There is no unfairness with him being on the case.” And the prosecution, to keep me on the case, basically said, “Listen, we will waive the death penalty, because we don’t want him off the case.” And I am still on that case now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you are, though, retiring at the end of this month. Talk about —


AMY GOODMAN: — your decision not to run again for — to be Arkansas circuit judge, how you look back on your career, and what your plans are.

JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: I am blessed with good health. And I am blessed that I could have run and, I think, won election for another term, another six-year term. At the same time, there are other things I would like to do, free of the restrictions that are incumbent on judges. I am a pastor. I am a public theologian. I am an unapologetic social justice activist. I am an author. Those are things I want to expend my next six years in.

I also think it’s a good thing for those of us who have served, and served well, in law to pass the baton to others before we get too weak to carry it. I don’t think that we should run out of gas before we pass the baton. It’s good to pass the baton while we still have gas and can cheer those who are coming after me. And I’m glad to say that my successor is a young woman who is going to do a great job.

And I am going to be able to do a great job in public theology. Our congregation is a social justice congregation. We have a social justice institute I’d like to be able to build up. I also want to consult on public theology and justice. And I have some book — some writing projects in the works.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you do anything differently, right through to now, as you speak out for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal in Pennsylvania?

JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN: No, I wouldn’t do anything differently. Cornel West, who is a friend of mine and was on the radio program that our congregation sponsors every Saturday morning a couple weeks ago, wrote in Democracy Matters, one of my favorite books by Cornel West, that “To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely — to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away.”

I am determined to make Christianity not the faith of religious nationalism. If we are not careful, we are going to follow the route of the religious people in Germany who sat quietly as the Third Reich came to power, and the name of Christ was identified with genocide, with homophobia, with xenophobia. I do not worship that kind of God. And I do not believe that our democracy should be that kind of place. I don’t want our faith, the faith that has sustained me, the faith that was handed to me by my ancestors, my parents, and the faith that I passed on to our sons, to be hijacked and used to exploit LGBTQ people, women, immigrants, people who are poor, people who are incarcerated. I do not want that to be the way God is represented by my life. And I want to spend the remaining years I have seeing someone living my way.

AMY GOODMAN: Wendell Griffen, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Arkansas circuit judge, retiring at the end of the year after 24 years on the bench. Judge Griffen is also the pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, author of The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope. This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion as he calls for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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