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Ronald Lee Sheffield (1946–)

Ronald Lee Sheffield, a lawyer, was a state insurance regulator for many years and served for a year as a justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Sheffield overcame many misfortunes to become the sixth African American to serve on the state’s highest court.

Ron Sheffield was born on June 30, 1946, in Coshocton, Ohio, to Mildred Hattie Sheffield. He never learned who his father was. His mother had been married and divorced; her son Billy Richards, who was reared by a grandparent, became a Muslim and changed his name to Hakim Bey. After Sheffield was born, his mother married Lee Evans Taylor Jr., a laborer at a General Electric (GE) plant. She worked as a maid and occasionally at the GE plant making television sets.

When Ronald was six, his half brother and half sister died in a house fire after their mother left home with something cooking on the stove. Sheffield managed to escape with the help of a neighbor. The fire department never came, and firefighting equipment across the street at a Carnation milk plant was off limits. (Sheffield boycotted Carnation products the rest of his life.) His mother bore the blame for the children’s deaths, and Sheffield became a living rebuke to his stepfather and suffered frequent abuse, including beatings. The couple had three other children, a son and two daughters.

Sheffield’s parents drank and fought constantly. Sheffield refused to have his last name changed to Taylor and took jobs as a shoeshine boy, a caddy at a nearby country club, and a laborer detaching vehicle parts at a wrecking yard near the family home in a slum on the outskirts of Coshocton. He earned the money to buy his own clothes and baseball equipment. He was one of the few African Americans in Coshocton’s schools and the only African American on both the football and baseball teams. He would start in the football team’s backfield when the team visited other cities but was not allowed to play before home crowds.

When Sheffield graduated from high school, his stepfather ordered him to leave home forever. (They only reconciled close to Taylor’s death in 1994.) Sheffield enlisted in the U.S. Air Force upon leaving home. He trained at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, to become a photographic technician and was assigned to the 825th Strategic Air Command at the Little Rock Air Force Base. On August 9, 1965, a fire inside the silo of a Titan II missile near Searcy (White County), where workers were retrofitting a nuclear-tipped missile, killed fifty-three men who were trapped in the sealed silo. Sheffield was sent into the silo that evening to film where all the men died, evidence that would help trace the origin and cause of the disaster. He also created photographic evidence of B-58 crashes for autopsies and investigations.

It was during the missile ordeal that Sheffield first encountered Southern racism. He and officers from the air base stopped for lunch at a restaurant near the missile site. The manager said that the uniformed Sheffield would have to eat in a room in the rear of the restaurant, not among regular patrons, although the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted a year earlier, forbade such discrimination. The officer in charge called the air base and said no one from the base was to ever again patronize the restaurant.

Sheffield was assigned to Vietnam in 1966, but he was diverted to Udorn Royal Air Force Base, Thailand, near the border with Cambodia. There, he processed aerial photography from secret reconnaissance flights over North Vietnam by Air America, an airline that was secretly controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1967, he was transferred to the Brooks Aerospace Medical Center at San Antonio, where he did photomatography for studies of cancer cells and the effect of weightlessness on astronauts.

When he left the air force, he intended to enroll at Ohio State University and play baseball, but he stopped in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to see an old girlfriend. He was persuaded to stay and enroll at Little Rock University, now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock), where he integrated the school’s fledgling baseball team and played for four years. He married Gwendolyn Alston, whom he had dated when he was stationed at the air force base. They had a daughter, Nicole Anjeannette Sheffield, but divorced after eighteen months.

He graduated in 1972 and went to work for the Arkansas Insurance Department under Governor Dale Bumpers. He investigated consumer complaints against insurance companies and eventually set up a consumer division that went after insurance schemes that defrauded college students and others. He earned a master’s degree in public administration at UA Little Rock and then a law degree by going to night school for five years.

Sheffield retired as the assistant state insurance commissioner in 1997, when Mike Huckabee became governor. In semi-retirement, he did some legal practice with insurance companies, which brought him into contact with Deborah Reed, who was buying a minority-owned burial insurance company with her mother. They married in 1998. Subsequently, he became an assistant to Secretary of State Sharon Priest until she left office in 2003.

In 2004, Democrats persuaded Sheffield to run for lieutenant governor on the promise that sufficient funds would be raised for him to make a credible race against Lieutenant Governor Winthrop Paul Rockefeller. After he won the Democratic nomination, the promised money was not forthcoming and he lost.

On January 1, 2010, Justice Annabelle Clinton Imber Tuck retired in the middle of her term, and Governor Mike Beebe appointed Sheffield to replace her for that year. His most important opinion led to the liberation of the West Memphis Three, the three young men convicted of first-degree murder of three boys whose bodies were found mutilated in a ditch at West Memphis in 1994. Two of the three were sentenced to death. Their appeals bounced around the courts for sixteen years. On November 4, 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court, which had previously upheld the boys’ convictions, ordered the circuit court to hold a hearing and evaluate new evidence. Sheffield persuaded the other justices, several of whom had upheld the convictions and turned down other appeals, that the law required a new hearing on DNA evidence found at the scene in 1994; that DNA turned out not to be connected to any of the three who were convicted. While the tests did not exonerate them, the results diluted the case against them and had the potential of incriminating others, Sheffield argued. The case was returned to the circuit court, where prosecutors decided to free the three under an obscure rule that allowed the men to go free by signing an admission of guilt, rather than undergo a new evidentiary hearing with virtually no evidence except the coerced confession of one of the boys.

After his court service, Sheffield returned to occasional pro bono legal work in Little Rock.

For additional information:
Cate, Matthew S. J., “Sheffield Put on High Court.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 15, 2010, pp. 1B, 4B.

Interview with Justice Ronald Sheffield, Arkansas Supreme Court Project. Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society. https://courts.arkansas.gov/sites/default/files/Sheffield%20oral%20history%20final.pdf (accessed December 12, 2018).

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated 12/27/2018

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