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Right now, on some level, Dennis Young is probably thinking about James Weaver Jr.
That's the kind of guy Young is. You can tell it just by looking at him, the wheels behind his eyes always turning over something like a stone being polished, his demeanor and bearing that of a minor-league baseball coach who once touched The Bigs, perfectly accented by an Ark-La-Tex twang. The thing his mind has been tumbling for over a year now is how to keep James Weaver from dying in prison.
The first thing you need to know about Young is that he's no easy touch. As a Democratic state representative from Texarkana from 1993 to 1999, he served as the co-chair of the Joint Penal Committee and co-sponsored the state's "Three Strikes" law, which sent loads of habitual criminals to prison for long stretches on relatively minor crimes. These days, he unapologetically calls Three Strikes "probably one of the worst pieces of legislation ever passed in Arkansas," saying it has contributed to the state's prison overcrowding crisis — something that's also often on his mind. Maybe that's what led him to seek a seat on the Arkansas Parole Board: some sense of culpability. If true, though, you'll probably never get him to admit it. He is also that type of guy. Plays the heart close to the vest.
It's odd then, to hear Young use a fairly squishy word like "fate" to describe what brought him to the Arkansas Department of Correction's Tucker Maximum Security Unit last June, where he met James Weaver Jr. Convicted of capital murder as an accomplice to a man who bludgeoned their roommate to death in December 1989, Weaver had been in a prison for over 24 years by then. With a sentence of life without parole, he was probably going to die there.
The more Young dug into Weaver's case, however, plowing through dusty files that hadn't been cracked since the original trial, the more Young became convinced that Weaver should have long since been allowed to rejoin the world as a free man.
The only hope for James Weaver at this point is clemency. His requests to Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mike Beebe for commutation have been unsuccessful, and the clock is ticking on his pending request to Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Hutchinson must decide on Weaver's petition by July 5, and if Hutchinson turns him down, Weaver will have to wait at least eight years until he can try again. By then, the man who went to prison at 19 will be north of 50 years old.
Recently retired as an insurance agent, Young was looking for something to occupy his time and energy in late March 2014 when he saw that Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) had objected to the appointment of Rapert's former election opponent Linda Tyler to the Parole Board, leading Gov. Mike Beebe to withdraw the appointment. Beebe had wanted Tyler to fill out the term of retiring Parole Board member Joe Peacock, which ran until Jan. 14, 2015, and was suddenly in need of a replacement.
"When I saw that in the paper," Young said, "I picked up the phone, called the governor's office, and said I was recently retired, and I was a former legislator. I thought, 'I know everything about the criminal justice system. I can hit the ground running.' So on April 1, I got a phone call, and they said, 'We'd like you to come up to fill this term.' "
As luck would have it, one of Dennis Young's favorite movies turns out to be "The Shawshank Redemption," and one of his favorite scenes in that favorite film is where Morgan Freeman's character Red, grown old in prison and out of give-a-damn, appears before the dapper parole board, where he finally tells the truth about his remorse, inadvertently talking the board into granting him the freedom that all the bowing and scraping he'd done before never could win him. As Dennis Young will tell you, though, real parole hearings don't have much in common with Hollywood fantasy.
In Arkansas, the way it generally works is one board member, one prison, several file boxes full of old horrors, and the slow parade of inmates. Later, that single board member passes along an up or down parole or clemency recommendation on each inmate to the full parole board (the single-member system is something Young has argued for changing, given how drastically one person's opinion can impact an inmate's chances for release). Young calls the 10 months he spent on the parole board one of the most meaningful times of his life.
Young wasn't even supposed to be at Tucker Max the day he interviewed James Weaver. But on June 5, 2014, board member Jimmy Wallace was out, so Tucker Max fell to Young. "Fate took me there," he said. "It was the only time I went there when I was on the board."
Young had been there awhile that day, asking questions of dangerous men, consulting files and filling out a parole hearing form he had devised himself, when Weaver's hearing came up. Even though Weaver was in for life without parole, lifers are allowed a hearing every eight years to make their case for clemency from the governor.
Young said the first thing he noticed about Weaver was that he had over a dozen supporters in the room. "This kid — and I call him a kid, but hell, he's 44 years old now — this young man comes in, clean- cut, no tattoos," Young said. "He had probably about 20 supporters there, including a minister and a number of other people. It just wasn't your usual parole hearing."
When Weaver became Arkansas Department of Correction Inmate No. 093762 he was a 19-year-old.
In December 1989, Weaver was living with two roommates, Alan Hubbard and John Rogers, in a house at 6212 Young Road in Southwest Little Rock. Weaver had met and moved in with Hubbard a few months earlier, living first in a trailer on Kanis Road with another roommate before moving into the house with Rogers and Hubbard, who had known each other since the third grade. Hubbard, then 20, was already a felon, convicted in his native Jefferson County in April 1988 of two counts of felony theft of property and two counts of breaking and entering. He'd been sentenced to three year's probation.
Like a lot of young men out on their own without many prospects, the three led a shabby, hand-to-mouth existence. Hubbard and Weaver threw newspapers in the early morning to bring in a little household income. They were taking a lot of drugs, Weaver and Hubbard later said: pot, alcohol and speed, spending most nights cruising Geyer Springs Road in Hubbard's 1986 Dodge Colt. Weaver had no car and had to rely on Hubbard for transportation.
Their dire financial straits were compounded by the fact that Rogers was, by all available accounts, habitually late on paying his third of the rent. While Weaver told detectives he was frustrated with Rogers' failure to pay, Hubbard was furious. Weaver said that Hubbard's anger grew until, in early December, Hubbard started talking about beating up Rogers to force him to pay. On Dec. 13, 1989, Hubbard and Weaver went over to the home of friends, Big Al and Little Al Caton, and came back to the house on Young Road with a 4-pound steel "tire thumper" — essentially a length of capped pipe — used by truckers to test the pressure in truck tires.
Just how that steel bar came into their possession — and, specifically, who asked to borrow it and why — is crucial to understanding why James Weaver was eventually charged, convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
John Johnson is the chief deputy prosecutor for the Sixth Judicial District. Speaking generally about the law and not specifically about the Weaver case, he said that though there was a time when a defendant could be charged with being an accessory after the fact, Arkansas law has long been that to be charged as an accomplice, one has to aid, assist, facilitate or participate in the planning or commission of the offense prior to or while the offense is being committed.
"Whether that's encouraging, aiding in some way, providing the murder weapon," Johnson said, "there has to be some sort of assistance in the commission of the crime, as opposed to coming in after the fact and helping to dispose of the body." In Arkansas, acting as an accomplice in a serious felony such as a murder can net you the same punishment as the person who actually killed, even if you never laid a finger on the victim.
The stories of who asked for the tire thumper and why, in both the police statements and Weaver's trial transcript, are mixed. Weaver consistently said it was Hubbard who asked for the bar, claiming that he didn't know that Hubbard planned to kill with it. Hubbard told police that it was Weaver who initially asked the Catons for a bat, with the two taking the iron bar instead. Little Al Caton, who had known Weaver much longer than Hubbard, testified at Weaver's trial that it was Hubbard who asked for a weapon to "beat up John." Al Caton Sr., however, said that it was Weaver who asked to borrow a bat to "do some collecting," a request Caton Sr. said he denied, though he testified that he did tell Weaver about the tire thumper in his car, saying, "I didn't tell him to go get it. I said, 'I ain't telling you you can't, I ain't telling you you can.' " Neither Al Caton Sr. or Jr. knew if it was Weaver or Hubbard who retrieved the bar. Other aspects of the Catons' accounts also don't match, such as whether it was day or night when Weaver and Hubbard arrived, and whether Big Al was home at the time or not. Attempts to locate and contact the Catons for further comment were unsuccessful by press time.
Whatever the truth, the prosecution was able to convince the jury that Weaver had helped Hubbard acquire the tire thumper with the knowledge that it would be used to kill.
In his testimony at trial, Weaver said that he and Hubbard had gone out to throw papers early on Dec. 14, 1989, the day after the visit to the Caton home. Hubbard would later tell investigators that at the time they were "loaded" on alcohol and speed. When they returned to the house, with Rogers asleep on the couch, Weaver said he was standing in the kitchen when Hubbard walked into the room holding the steel bar and asked if he would help kill Rogers.
"I got angry at him," Weaver testified at his trial. "I got agitated, and I told him that he was stupid, and that he wasn't going to kill anybody, especially John. He'd known him since the third grade, and what he was doing was ridiculous."
After that, Weaver said, he went to bed in his room, on the other side of the wall from the living room where Rogers slept. After about 15 minutes, Weaver told the jury, Hubbard came in and sat silently on the edge of the bed for a full minute, holding the iron bar. Then Hubbard stood up and walked out. Weaver testified that seconds later, he heard a sickening thump from the other side of the wall. He said he got up and walked into the hallway just in time to hear a flurry of blows. An autopsy would later find that Rogers had been struck on the left side of his head with a heavy object at least six times, his skull crushed to the point that the medical examiner said it was "almost split into two halves."
In his statement to police, Hubbard told Detective Mark Stafford that Weaver was sitting on the end of the couch when he murdered John Rogers, something Weaver denied and Dennis Young discounted, given that Rogers, who was 5-foot-10-inches tall according to the autopsy report, was stretched out there asleep. Asked why he killed Rogers, Hubbard told detectives that money wasn't the real reason. He said he was just angry. "[It was] just a little bit of everything," Hubbard said. "He's one of those kind of people."
After hearing John Rogers being killed, Weaver testified at his trial, he eventually went into the living room. "[Hubbard] told me to come with him to get rid of John's body, and I knew that John was dead," Weaver said. "I told him I didn't want to go, and he said that I didn't have a choice. That I was already in trouble. I didn't stop him or anything, so there was no use resisting." Weaver said that in addition to being worried that he would also get in trouble for the crime, he was scared that Hubbard would hurt or kill him if he resisted.
"You're James Weaver," Dennis Young said. "You walk out into the hallway and there's Alan Hubbard. He's standing there with a bloody tire thumper in his hand, and there's a dead body on the couch right here. He says, 'You're going to help me get rid of this body.' You're a bit smaller than he is. You're a person who has never stood up to anybody in your life. What are you going to do? You're going to say, 'Yes, Alan. Do you want me to get my clothes on right now so we can go?' "
Weaver went. After throwing away Rogers' bloody jeans and sweater in a dumpster behind a nearby bowling alley, the two drove around for a while with the body in the hatchback of Hubbard's Colt. They eventually made their way to a power line service road near Willow Lake in Cabot just as the sun came up. Once there, Weaver said, he and Hubbard rolled Rogers' body out of the car before Hubbard dragged him into the woods.
On the way back to Little Rock, Weaver would later testify, Hubbard made a joking threat that he took very seriously. "He told me that if — well, he was joking with me — and he said that he hoped that no differences come between us, because he didn't want to kill me, too."
After they got back to the house, the two tried to clean up the blood with towels and bleach. The next day, Hubbard rented a steam cleaner at a local grocery store. When Rogers' girlfriend stopped by looking for Rogers on the day he was killed, she told police, Weaver answered the door and told her that John had been in a fight with some unknown men, then left with them. The next day, Mike Roberts, the foreman of the paint crew John Rogers sometimes worked on, stopped to pick up Rogers. Roberts later told police he had seen blood on the porch and grass. Hubbard and Weaver moved out of the house on Young Road and into an apartment within days.
Young said Weaver has since told him that Hubbard rarely let Weaver out of his sight after the murder. Coupled with Weaver's naturally timid personality, Young said Weaver was just following his lifelong pattern of "going along to get along" when he helped dispose of the body and lied to those who came looking for Rogers.
"Until the police showed up, James Weaver was pretty much under the thumb of Alan Hubbard, that entire time," Young said. "I guess he could have taken off and run out the front door and tried to seek refuge somewhere, but in my mind, he's still got [the memory of] that bloody body there on the couch and Alan Hubbard standing there with a tire thumper. He's wondering, 'Would he do this to me if I try to do something?' "
Rogers' girlfriend eventually filed a missing person's report. When detectives with the Little Rock Police Department showed up at the door of Hubbard and Weaver's new apartment four days before Christmas 1989, both agreed to go down to the station to answer some questions. Transported in separate cars, they didn't even make it to the freeway before they started spilling their guts about what happened.
On March 6, 1990, less than three months after the murder of John Rogers, James Weaver Jr. was afforded a one-day trial. At the time, Alan Hubbard was in the state hospital on a court-ordered mental evaluation and wasn't available to testify. Though Weaver's public defender asked Judge John Langston to continue the case until Hubbard could be available to testify, the motion was denied. (Prosecutor John Johnson, it should be noted, said it's common for trials against accomplices to go forward without the actual killer being available to testify.)
After a little over three hours of jury deliberation — and with the jury having the option to convict him of first-degree or second-degree murder or manslaughter — Weaver was found guilty of capital murder. The state had waived the death penalty in the case, so the only possible sentence was life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Months later, Alan Hubbard would later accept a plea bargain in which he pled guilty to first-degree murder. He received a sentence of life in prison, and died there on May 22, 2007.
Dennis Young knew only the sketched outlines of that story before James Weaver's clemency hearing on June 5 last year. Talking to Weaver and looking over his file, Young said that he just couldn't shake the nagging idea that there was something wrong with the case.
"In my conversation with him, I just started thinking, 'There's something about this,' " Young said. "This guy is going to stay here. He'll rot. He'll stay in prison for the rest of his life. And all he was is an accessory to a murder? When I got back to the office, I really started looking into it."
While Young said most recommendations to the full board were made on the same day as the hearing, he decided to hold on to the case for a while. In taking a closer look at Weaver's file, one of the first things he noticed was that in Weaver's Inmate Record Summary, it listed Weaver as a habitual criminal, convicted of two counts of breaking and entering and two counts of theft of property out of Jefferson County.
"I thought, 'Yeah, he's a bad egg. He did some other things before this occurred, and he was only 18 when it happened,' " Young said. Still, that feeling kept gnawing at him.
"I keep reading and reading," Young said. "Finally, I thought, 'I have got to go back down, and I've got to talk to him again.' So I do. I went back down to Tucker. And I said, 'James, what about these other felonies that occurred in Jefferson County?' He sits there rather stunned, and he says, 'I don't know what you're talking about.' "
What Young was the first to discover, what apparently nobody else caught, was that at some point in the past 25 years, someone had copied the criminal information from Alan Hubbard's records into the records attached to James Weaver. Specifically, this: "Defendant James Weaver has been previously convicted of four (4) or more felonies, and consequently his sentence should be increased as provided for in Ark. Code Ann. 5-4-501."
Other than that it begins with "Defendant Alan Glenn Hubbard Jr. ..." the language in Hubbard's file is identical. Young later confirmed with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and the Pine Bluff Police Department that Weaver had never been arrested or charged there. In fact, prior to his being convicted of capital murder, Weaver had never been charged with anything more than traffic violations.
While the false information wasn't included in Weaver's original trial or sentencing, Young said there's no telling how long it has been in his Inmate Record Summary, tainting the opinions of parole board members or those in the governor's office who review requests for clemency.
"Somebody in the typing pool somewhere, probably in Pine Bluff, made a mistake," Weaver said. "It's the exact same information that shows up in Alan Hubbard's file. Alan Hubbard is the one with the record of the four felonies, but it appears right there in [Weaver's] summary of prior criminal actions."
After sorting that out, Young started requesting documents, including the original prosecutor's file, and the trial transcript. The more he read, the more disturbed he was by the case. He eventually made a report to the full parole board detailing all the information he'd uncovered, and on Oct. 1, 2014, the full board recommended unanimously, with merit, that Weaver's sentence be commuted from life without parole to time served or parole eligibility.
"This is the absolute worst case I've seen," said Young, who created the website freejamesweaver.com to raise awareness about the case. "There's just absolutely no reason for a man like this to get life without parole. I can't tell you how adamant I am about that. I wouldn't be doing all this if I wasn't adamant. This stays on my mind."
The Arkansas Department of Correction denied the Times' request for a face-to-face interview with Weaver, citing the ADC's Administrative Regulation 001, which includes a clause that says, "Prior to granting approval for such interviews, the Warden will have to take into consideration the effect such an interview may have on the inmate and his/her personal mental attitude, the effect it may have on other inmates, and the effect of such an interview with respect to any pending review of the inmate." ADC spokesperson Cathy Frye said that it was her understanding that the portion about "any pending review" was the reason for the denial.
We were, however, able to get a few basic questions to Weaver before press time, which he was able to answer and forward to us. In that response, Weaver reiterated what he told police and the jury in 1990, that it was Alan Hubbard who procured the tire thumper and that he didn't know Hubbard planned to use it to commit murder.
"To be frank," Weaver wrote, "at the time, I was more interested in trying to obtain drugs. Fulfilling my addiction was more important to me than other things going on around me. I'm ashamed to say that, but it's true."
Weaver said that after the murder, he wished he had run, tried to contact the authorities, or reached out for help. "I should have and wished I had done a thousand things," Weaver wrote. "I was afraid, a coward, and shamefully compliant. My limited life experience and lack of emotional fortitude were simply not sufficient in the face of that horror. If there was any sense in my world, it was lost. The irony is that my arrest was my rescue. And as I share this, I need to say, though I was subject to something I was incapable of responding to rationally, I can't in good conscience use that to justify my lack of courage and inaction. Because John was the true victim."
Weaver's mother, Deborah Croxton, said that while the first 10 years of her son's incarceration were hard on her, seeing James grow as a man in prison has helped. "I know there's this thing where people go to prison and suddenly they believe in God and they're saved. He truly is. There are men who truly are saved. I don't know if you're a Christian, but I am. And I am because of James," she said. "I believe that God saved his life. I truly believe that. I don't like the fact that he's down there, but he's come so far."
While Croxton said she is 100 percent convinced her son had nothing to do with planning the murder, she said James has accepted his guilt and responsibility for not doing more to deter Alan Hubbard from killing Rogers, and for not contacting authorities after the murder. "James took responsibility for his part in not reacting in a crime," she said. "He has paid for that. ... But it's just time [for him to be released]. He's been in too long for what he didn't or did do."
If he gets out, Weaver told the Times he wants to visit the grave of his father, who died in 2006. Given how many times Weaver has been denied clemency already, however, Dennis Young said he worries a lot about giving Weaver too much hope.
"In my last letter from James, he started talking about, 'when he got out,' and 'when he had freedom,' " Young said. "Oh God, I hated to see him write about that. Because I'm just scared to death that the governor may say no, regardless of all the information he's been given."
As for Weaver, he wrote that he doesn't believe meeting Dennis Young at Tucker Max last June was an accident. "I don't know if it is possible to adequately express the depth of gratitude my family and I have for Mr. Young, for his belief in me, and his tireless effort to expose the truth and strengthen our hope. I will be forever in his debt," Weaver wrote. "It is true that our futures in this world can never be known with certainty. However, I don't subscribe to coincidence. That doesn't mean that I understand the reason for everything that happens, but I do believe there can be meaning and purpose discovered through the most difficult circumstance."