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UU leads Arkansas anti-death penalty campaign

Social activist David Rickard bases action on UU First Principle.
By Donald E. Skinner

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David Rickard

David Rickard, the chair of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (ACADP). (Brian Chilso/Arkansas Times)

When the death penalty is abolished in Arkansas, David Rickard will have had a substantial role in that effort.

It may not happen anytime soon, but it will come eventually, believes Rickard, the chair of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (ACADP). He is also a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock.

Rickard has long been active in work for the Unitarian Universalist Association. For more than 35 years he has been a UUA stewardship consultant. In that capacity he has helped more than 250 congregations with annual budget drives, capital campaigns, and other financial challenges.

He moved to Little Rock in 1983 from Boston when his first wife became minister of First Unitarian. Two years later he was recruited by a church member into the anti-death penalty movement.

“I’d always been interested in civil liberties and this was a natural extension,” he said. “To have the state exact the ultimate penalty is the most severe violation of civil rights. It’s an attack on the worth and dignity of every person, and it was pretty easy for me to get involved with this issue.”

Rickard is in step with the UUA on this issue. The Association passed another resolution at the 2000 General Assembly opposing the death penalty. In 2005, the UUA passed a resolution about the need for reform in the criminal justice system and in prisons. This latter resolution was adopted as a two-year Study/Action Issue by congregations.

Currently Rickard is chair of a campaign seeking to convince the governor and the legislature to create a death penalty study commission. Similar commissions have been formed in Maryland, New Hampshire, and Tennessee. The work of another commission resulted in the repeal of the death penalty in New Jersey in 2007.

Rickard was featured in the June 5, 2008, issue of the Arkansas Times, a weekly newspaper of politics and culture, for his efforts to abolish the death penalty. He has earned other recognition as well. In 2007 he was named “Abolitionist of the Year” by the ACADP. In 2002 he was named Civil Libertarian of the Year by the Arkansas affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.

As part of his involvement with the death penalty issue he has become spiritual advisor to an Arkansas death row inmate, Kenneth Reams. The ACADP sends information regularly to people on death row. Soon after Rickard became chair of the group several years ago he received a letter from Reams, who asked, “How can you be against the death penalty unless you know people on the row?”

“Well, this was a wake up call for me,” said Rickard. So in April of 2000 Rickard traveled to Arkansas’s Death Row, then in Tucker, Arkansas, an hour east of Little Rock, and met with Reams. “Two hours went by rather quickly,” he said. “We found we had a lot to talk about, and I’ve been visiting him about once a month since then.”

Reams is in prison for an ATM holdup that went bad. His partner shot the victim then let Reams be tried and convicted of the killing. Reams, an African American, has been on death row for 15 years. He was 18 when he was convicted, the youngest death row inmate at the time.

Talking with Reams has been a transformative experience, said Rickard. “We talk about how he is, how he deals with being in a 9x12 foot cell 23 hours a day, about theology and religion. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I never thought I’d become close to a man with a background like that.”

He said that he and Reams have similar religious beliefs. “He has a strong belief in God, but not an interventionist god. He believes in the power of prayer. I believe that in focusing my attention on an issue I can find answers. There’s not a whole lot of difference there. To him, Jesus is a great teacher. I’m not sure he calls him Christ, although he is a Christian. At times his theology sounds a lot like mine.”

Rickard hopes that a death penalty study commission will be created in Arkansas to study issues including cost, impact on victims’ families, and racial and geographical bias in the administration of capital punishment. Rickard noted that 25 of Arkansas’s 39 death row inmates are black, while just under 16 percent of Arkansans are black. The last execution in the state was in 2005. Reams’ case is still in the appeals process, and no date has been set for his execution.

Rickard, raised a Methodist, followed a well-worn path to Unitarian Universalism. Falling away from religion after high school he joined the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Va., in 1967 after his first child was born.

Never one to lurk around the edges, he became active almost immediately in the church. He became vice-president in 1970. He also served four years as president of the Massachusetts Bay District of the UUA, eight years on the planning committee for the UUA’s annual General Assembly of Congregations, and several years on a task force studying the distribution of resources and representation among the UUA districts.

Through the years he has also been active in causes including reproductive rights, the separation of church and state, healthcare for children, and expanded library services. He served on the board of the Central Arkansas Library System for 13 years, including three years as president, and has served on the Arkansas Ethics Commission and the board of the Arkansas affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In his professional life he worked 22 years for the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C. and Boston. In Arkansas, he worked as a senior analyst for the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and served as special assistant to the director of the Arkansas Department of Human Services. He is currently an independent consultant on organization and policy issues in addition to his financial consulting for the UUA and his work on social justice issues.

All that makes for a full week. What compels Rickard to immerse himself in multiple social issues? “It’s just not my pattern to ignore an issue that has to do with the inherent worth and dignity of each person, although there are times I wish I could,” he said, smiling.

He said he chooses which fights he will take on—the fights that will occupy 30 to 40 hours of each month. It helps, he said, that he’s “fairly well organized and pretty good at delegating. Also I’m blessed with not having to sleep a lot. And I have a lot of airport time for getting work done. I use the time on the airplane itself for resting and recharging.”

Church is also important in that regard, he said. “There are people there who are supportive of what I’m doing, including the minister. It’s a place to go to get my batteries recharged among people with good minds and good heads and good hearts.”

He is optimistic about closing out the death penalty. “The tide is turning nationally and in Arkansas,” he said. “In 2008, Texas, which leads the country in executions, sentenced only nine persons to death. In 2007, New Jersey repealed the death penalty. New Hampshire, Maryland, and Tennessee have all established death penalty study commissions—and Maryland's has recommended repeal. The Supreme Court in New York has ruled the death penalty unconstitutional and the legislature did not reauthorize it.

He added, “If you ask people in Arkansas if they’re opposed to the death penalty only 30 percent say they are. But two thirds are in favor of a study commission. We see an audience that is reachable. When they know the facts, a majority of people will say that the risk of killing an innocent person is too great.”

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