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Ethics case dropped against Arkansas judge over execution protest

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen lies on a cot in the role of a condemned prisoner awaiting execution during a protest outside the Governor’s Mansion in April 2017.

by The Associated Press | June 12, 2019 at 11:53 a.m. | Updated June 12, 2019 at 3:54 p.m.

LITTLE ROCK — An Arkansas disciplinary panel dismissed an ethics case against a judge who faced the possibility of removal from the bench for participating in an anti-death penalty demonstration the same day he blocked the state from using an execution drug, the commission’s counsel said Wednesday.

The Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission dismissed the case Tuesday against Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen because too much time had passed between the complaint being filed and the commission taking up the case, according to an email that counsel Marie-Bernarde Miller sent to attorneys in the case. Miller said Wednesday that the panel would issue a written order in the next day or two elaborating on its reasons for the dismissal.

Griffen was accused of violating ethical rules after he was photographed in April 2017 lying on a cot outside the governor’s mansion wearing an anti-death penalty button and surrounded by people holding signs opposing executions. Earlier that day, Griffen blocked Arkansas from using a lethal injection drug over a medical supply company’s claims that it had been misled by prison officials.

“HALLELUJAH! I am glad that the charges that nobody has been willing to take responsibility for have been shown for what they are: baseless, cowardly, malicious and utterly political,” Griffen said in a statement released by his attorney. Griffen thanked his legal team and his supporters.

The commission cancelled Griffen’s scheduled Thursday hearing after the special counsel assigned to the case asked to be recused because of scheduling conflicts. The commission had cited a rule that complaints must be disposed of within 18 months, and last week said a little over two weeks remained to hear Griffen’s case. If it found he had violated judicial rules, the commission could have recommended that the state Supreme Court suspend or remove Griffen.

Griffen’s attorney, Mike Laux, called the case a waste of time, resources and money.

“And for what? To attack a righteous man for voicing his protected religious beliefs?” Laux wrote in an email.

Griffen has said he was portraying Jesus and participating in a prayer vigil when he was laying on the cot. He argued that his decision in the drug case was based on the law and not his personal opinions about the death penalty, and that his participation in the demonstration was protected by the First Amendment. Days after the protest, the state Supreme Court removed Griffen from the drug case and prohibited him from handling any other execution-related cases. The commission in November dismissed a separate ethics case against justices over the court’s decision to disqualify Griffen.

The commission last week ruled that the justices did not have to testify in Griffen’s ethics hearing.