We like to think of Christopher Hitchens as our surly, crotchety uncle. You know, if our uncle were a chain-smoking, ruddy-faced Englishman with a penchant for hyperbole and who was constitutionally incapable of being nice. In Crusty Uncle Chris’s latest diatribe, he argues that no one should be surprised at Bill Clinton’s playing the race card in South Carolina as he and Hillary Clinton haven’t been above it before, most notably in the case of Ricky Ray Rector.
Have you ever heard of Ricky Ray Rector? Neither had we (but with a name like that, we assumed he was either a serial killer or had assassinated a historical figure). We certainly got the killing part right.
In 1982, Ricky Ray Rector and some of his boys went to a dancehall in Conway, Arkansas. When they couldn’t foot the three-dollar cover, Rector pulled out his .38 and shot wildly at the people at the front door. He killed one person and left the other two injured. After days hiding in the woods and his mother’s house, he agreed to turn himself in to a police officer whom he’d known for most of his life. When the officer turned away from Martin during their conversation, Rector shot the officer in the jaw and neck. Then he walked outside of his mother’s house, put his pistol to his head, and pulled the trigger.
Rector would survive the gunshot, but it left him more or less lobotomized, with an IQ was around 70. Still, a judge ruled him competent to stand trial. He was convicted and sentenced to death, although there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that he didn’t understand the charges against him or his conviction (Hitchens says that when guards took Rector to his death, he made sure he left part of the pecan pie, the dessert from his last meal, “for later”).
Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, was running for president, and rushed back to Arkansas from the campaign trail. He wanted people to be sure that the execution was still being carried out — he needed to appear tough on crime as he lost traction with voters.
It took 50 minutes for the prison staff to find a suitable vein for Rector’s lethal injection. Witnesses said Rector moaned the entire time. In the aftermath of the whole affair, the prison chaplain resigned.
Rector is an imperfect martyr, sure. But Clinton’s assertion that Democrats “should no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent” as justification to put a mentally retarded man is emblematic of the kind of queasying political calculation that’s become synonymous with the Clinton’s in the 16 years since.
“For now, I just ask you to imagine what would have been said if a Republican governor, falling in the polls, had gone out of his way to execute a mentally incompetent African-American prisoner,” Hitchens asks.
It’s not an illegitimate point.