Central Arkansas venues have a full week of commemorative events planned
In December 1993, Kenneth Reams, an 18-year-old black man, sat on trial for capital murder in a shooting he didn't commit.
Seven months earlier, he and a friend, Alford Goodwin, looking for quick money, had waited for a target by an ATM machine at Fifth and Chestnut streets in Pine Bluff. A similar scheme had failed the previous week when an ATM user floored the gas before Goodwin and Reams could get to him. This time the pair, with a .32 pistol in tow, were determined to get what they wanted. And though it was not in the plan to kill someone, that's what happened when Goodwin, who handled the weapon, demanded cash from the driver, Gary Turner. Turner resisted. Goodwin shot.
Kenneth Reams was not a guiltless bystander. There was no question that he was complicit in the crime — or that he was on a quick road to trouble. He had spent his teens drifting from family member to family member in Missouri and Arkansas, and Pine Bluff seemed to bring out the worst in him. He had obtained the murder weapon in a robbery of a local dry-cleaner. He used it to hold up a bus station just days before the ATM job.
But Reams was not a killer. Alford Goodwin pulled the trigger, and Goodwin got life without parole in a plea deal before Reams went to trial.
Goodwin never admitted that he was the shooter during Reams' trial, allowing prosecutors to pose the uncertainty of the gunman's identity. Testifying for himself, Reams was the only witness at trial who could say he didn't shoot Gary Turner. In fact, he was the only witness for the defense at all during the verdict phase. When the verdict came back, it was guilty; when the sentence came back, it was death.
That Reams should die and Goodwin live seems an injustice. But in the eyes of Arkansas law, an accomplice to a felony resulting in murder is as culpable as the murderer himself. Jefferson County prosecutors never had to show that Reams killed Turner; they simply needed to prove that he was party to the crime, a fact true by his own admission. Currently more than 30 states allow murder charges to be brought against non-killers under this legal doctrine, known as the felony-murder rule, and Reams' death sentence is just one of about 80 in such cases over the past three decades.
Today, almost 15 years after his sentence was handed down, Reams is still unsure whether the state will kill him. The delay is not strange in itself: A long death-penalty appeals process has been common practice since the 1960s, and eight of the 40 men on Arkansas's death row have been awaiting execution longer than Reams. Yet his trial was so full of irregularities that his case has been championed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, one of the foremost civil-rights law firms in the nation — the one that convinced the Supreme Court to declare the death penalty unconstitutional for a brief period in the 1970s.
NAACP lawyers have questioned whether Reams had representation at all. In capital cases, jurors must weigh aggravating circumstances, such as previous violent offenses, against mitigating circumstances that might show the criminal does not deserve to die. NAACP lawyers say Maxie Kizer, Reams' court-appointed attorney in 1993, did little to find mitigating circumstances in Reams' past. He conducted just a few interviews with people who knew Reams, and he relegated much of the work to his secretary, who had no experience with such investigations. During Reams' appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court, Kizer hired a Little Rock lawyer unfamiliar with the case to ghostwrite his briefs; Kizer never appeared before the Supreme Court to make oral arguments.