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Played crucified Jesus during death-penalty protest outside Arkansas Governor's Mansion, judge says

Griffen: Ruling about property ownership, not death penalty by Debra Hale-Shelton | April 20, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, shown protesting at the Governor’s Mansion in April, said on his blog that he was portraying a crucified Jesus and that his hat covered “a black leather bound King James Version of the Bible, the book that my parents taught me to read and love as a child.”

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen said Wednesday that he was portraying a crucified Jesus on Good Friday as he lay strapped on a cot during a death-penalty protest outside the Governor's Mansion.

Griffen also said a judicial ruling he issued Friday was about property ownership, not capital punishment.

A photograph distributed by The Associated Press of Griffen lying on the cot showed protesters standing beside him with signs reading "Abolish Death Penalty" and "No!! Executions."

Earlier that day, Griffen had effectively blocked a series of executions planned in Arkansas when he issued a temporary restraining order that prevented the prison system from using one of three drugs -- a paralytic -- scheduled for use in lethal injections scheduled for this and next week.

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The Arkansas Supreme Court later overturned that order and stripped Griffen of his authority to preside over any death-penalty cases. The high court's decision also has led to an ethics investigation by a state judicial commission.

However, another judge on the 6th Circuit intervened Wednesday along the same lines as Griffen.

Some people had interpreted the photograph of Griffen on the cot as his portrayal of a prisoner lying on a gurney and awaiting execution, not that of Jesus.

The Bible speaks of Jesus being carried away for burial but does not say if a gurney, a donkey or other method was used to move the body.

Griffen was presiding over a trial in court and did not return several messages seeking comment Tuesday or Wednesday. But in a personal online blog, Griffen, who also is a Baptist preacher, described his Good Friday portrayal as a spiritual one.

He wrote that he attended the vigil with other members of the congregation where he preaches, New Millennium Church. "They led other persons in singing This Little Light of Mine and Amazing Grace, songs long associated with the religion of Jesus," he wrote.

"So because I am a follower of Jesus and a citizen of the United States and Arkansas, I portrayed a dead person -- the Jesus who was crucified by the Roman Empire on what we call Good Friday -- by lying motionless on a cot in front of the Arkansas Governor's Mansion," Griffen wrote. "The hat shown ... in photographs of my prone figure covered a black leather bound King James Version of the Bible, the book that my parents taught me to read and love as a child."

Griffen continued: "Whether I attended the Good Friday vigil or not does not change property law," Griffen said. "Whether anyone approves or disapproves of me attending the Good Friday vigil does not change property law. Whether I support or am opposed to capital punishment does not change property law. I am entitled to practice my religion -- whether I am a judge or not -- even if others disapprove of the way I practice it."

Griffen noted that ownership of drugs used for capital punishment has been an issue in the death-penalty cases. Some drug manufacturers have said the state does not have the right to use the drugs in that way and that the state acquired the drugs after misleading the companies.

Griffen, 65, acknowledged he has "strong views about capital punishment" but said those views are not relevant in a property-law case.

Property law is what caused him to order the state Department of Correction to preserve the paralytic that was about to be used in an execution until a full hearing could be held, Griffen said. Otherwise, he said, the drug could have been used or destroyed and its rightful owner could not have gotten it back.

"Property disputes about ownership of drug products are property disputes, not decisions about the morality of capital punishment," he wrote.

A former state appeals court justice, Griffen has long been known to speak his mind even when some would prefer he not. He was the first black partner at a major Arkansas law firm, Wright, Lindsey & Jennings LLP.

In a 2010 interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Griffen said it's impossible to separate politics and religion. Christianity was founded on combating injustice and speaking truth to power, he said.

He has made headlines in the past for criticizing the Hurricane Katrina response by George W. Bush's presidential administration and the firing of basketball coach Nolan Richardson by the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Griffen said earlier this week that the Arkansas and U.S. supreme courts have recognized that judges have a constitutional right to free speech. "I look forward to vindicating myself and upholding the First Amendment," he said.

Griffen previously worked with Emmanuel Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church but resigned from Mount Pleasant in March 2009 to form New Millennium.

New Millennium belongs to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, formed in the 1990s after it withdrew from the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention.

Aaron Weaver, a spokesman for the fellowship, said Wednesday that it has 1,800 congregations in 18 states and regions. Unlike the Southern Baptist Convention, the fellowship is decentralized and does not adopt policy statements or resolutions.

"We don't adopt creeds," Weaver said. "We don't have official statements on the death penalty, capital punishment or abortion."

Unlike the Southern Baptist Convention, churches within the cooperative, for example, can hire women as preachers if the congregations so choose.

By contrast, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 adopted a resolution supporting "the fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death."

The resolution also urged "civil magistrates to use humane means in administering capital punishment" and "without undue delay."

State Desk on 04/20/2017

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