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The killing of African American Carnell Russ by white Star City (Lincoln County) police officer Charles Lee Ratliff on May 31, 1971, highlights many matters surrounding race, civil rights, and law enforcement in Arkansas at the time. The case involved hostile and aggressive white policing, skewed all-white or mostly white juries, the lack of black police officers and black jurors in areas heavily populated by black residents, judges with questionable impartiality, unconcerned federal agencies, and the procedural intricacies and bureaucracy of the criminal justice system. Importantly, it led to a change in federal policy over how civil rights cases would be handled in the future.
Carnell Russ was pulled over by state trooper Jerry Green at around 5:45 p.m. on Highway 81 through Yorktown (Lincoln County), six miles north of Star City, for allegedly traveling seventy-five miles per hour in a sixty-mile-an-hour speed zone. Russ; his wife, Clementine; six of their nine children; and Clementine’s cousin were returning to Monticello (Drew County) after a Memorial Day visit to Clementine’s parents in Benton (Saline County). Russ halted the car and tendered his license. Green told Russ to follow him to the Star City Jail to post bond.
Officers Charles Lee Ratliff and Norman Draper met him at the jail. Ratliff had recently arrived from Shannon, Mississippi, and had been on the job for just four months. Draper was preparing to begin his job as a city police officer the following day. At the jail, Russ was advised that his required bond was $23. He asked if he could be released on his own recognizance, since his father knew Lincoln County sheriff Billy Bert French. Ratliff unsuccessfully attempted to contact French. Russ was unable to reach his father. Ratliff told Russ that he could not leave without posting bond. Russ asked if he could pay by check. Ratliff said he needed cash. Russ then went out to the car, and Clementine gave him the bond money.
Back inside, Russ asked if he could have a copy of the speeding ticket. Green told him that the ticket would be retained for the local court. Russ insisted that he would not hand over the bond money until he had a copy of the ticket, which he was entitled to under state law. Ratliff told Russ that he was going to lock him up for refusing to pay. He placed his hand on Russ’s left elbow. Russ drew back and assumed a fighting posture.
Exactly what happened next drew different accounts from the survivors. According to Ratliff, he exchanged a number of blows with Russ before hitting Russ in the head with his gun. The gun discharged in the process, shooting Russ in the forehead. Draper told a similar story, though he claimed it was all over in “a very few seconds.” State trooper Green testified that “no licks” had been exchanged and that Ratliff had extended his arm and shot Russ in the head. Russ was rushed by ambulance to University Hospital in Little Rock (Pulaski County), where he was pronounced dead at 2:20 a.m.
On June 3, a sixteen-member Lincoln County grand jury composed of fourteen whites and two elderly blacks convened. They returned a true bill of voluntary manslaughter against Ratliff—one of the lesser charges open to the grand jury. Despite attempts from the state’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to encourage the federal government and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to investigate, no investigation was forthcoming. In January 1972, it took an all-white jury less than eight minutes to return a verdict of “not guilty” for Ratliff.
On the second anniversary of Russ’s death, his widow and her nine children began a “wrongful death” civil lawsuit. The presiding judge, Oren Harris, had sided with pro-segregation policy during his long tenure as an Arkansas U.S. congressman, so he was not considered to be a sympathetic choice for a civil rights trial. The trial ended with the acquittal of Green by the jury. NAACP attorneys took the case to the Eighth Circuit Appeals Court, which ordered a new trial for Ratliff on the grounds that, “under any version of the incident [Ratliff] must be held to have used excessive force on his prisoner.”
In a separate action, NAACP lawyers filed suit against the U.S. attorney general and the FBI for their failure to investigate and prosecute Russ’s shooting. Since President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, there had been a policy of not following up with a federal trial if a state prosecution had already taken place. As a result of the suit, President Jimmy Carter’s administration announced a change in policy: Each case would now be investigated “on its own merits,” irrespective of what had been done at the state level. The NAACP dropped its suit in response to this change.
In April 1979, almost eight years after Carnell Russ’s death, a jury awarded the Russ family a total of $288,000 in damages. It had little practical effect. Ratliff had since absconded from Arkansas and, even if found, showed little prospect of ever paying out on the settlement.
In July 1980, Clementine Russ filed a $330,000 wrongful death claim against the State of Arkansas, maintaining that, “as a result of the policies of the state of Arkansas, a black American citizen was shot and killed, wantonly, recklessly and intentionally by a law enforcement officer of a municipality created by the state of Arkansas.” The claim came to nothing.
The Russ family has never given up its fight for justice. Through their efforts, in 1973, the Lincoln County NAACP branch was renamed the Carnell Russ branch, the only branch in the state named after an individual. In 2010, Leatrice Russ-Glenns, Carnell Russ’s sister, helped to establish Carnell Russ Day Community Unity Festival in Star City. Supported by the office of the mayor, the day offers a series of events to bring together the black and white residents of the community.
For additional information:
Kirk, John A. “The Killing of Carnell Russ: Civil Rights, Law Enforcement, and the Courts.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 74 (Autumn 2015): 231–256.
———. “The Long Shadow of Carnell Russ’ Death.” Arkansas Times, September 4, 2014, pp. 14–19. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/the-long-shadow-of-carnell-russ-death/Content?oid=3445168 (accessed October 31, 2014).
NAACP v. Bell, 76 F.R.D. 134 (D.D.C.1977).
NAACP v. Civiletti, 609 F2d 514 (D.C.C. 1979).
NAACP v. Levi, 418 F. Supp. 1109 (D.D.C. 1976).
Russ et al. v. Ratliff et. al., 76-1007; Pleading Case Files, 1891–1993. U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, Records of the United States Court of Appeals, Record Group 276. National Archives and Records Administration at Kansas City, Missouri.
Russ et al. v. Ratliff et. al., PB-73-C-96; Civil Case Files, 1961–1994. Eastern District of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, Records of the District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21. National Archives and Records Administration at Fort Worth, Texas.
John A. Kirk
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Last Updated 11/19/2015
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