The deaths of New York’s Eric Garner and Ferguson teen Michael “Mike Mike” Brown at the hands of White police officers have ignited discussions nationwide about race and justice.
In 1971, the death of Arkansas man Carnell Russ foreshadowed those incidents with a strong overtone of injustice. Russ, 24, was driving to his hometown of Monticello when he was stopped for speeding. In the car was his wife, Clementine, six of their nine children, and a cousin.
Russ was compliant and followed orders to visit a nearby Star City station to post bond of $23. While there, he encountered Charles Ratliff, the town’s only police officer whose last career had been as cafe owner, and trainee Norman Draper, who was to start the next day.
Russ asked to be let go on his own recognizance since his father knew the Lincoln County sheriff.
Ratliff couldn’t get anyone on the phone, so Russ had to pay. Russ wanted a copy of the ticket before paying the fine, which was his legal right. Ratliff resisted and said that he would arrest Russ for not paying. From there, details conflict but Ratliff claims Russ touched him.
Ratliff responded by hitting Russ in the head with his gun, which he claims discharged. Russ did not immediately die but his family was unaware of what was happening inside the jail. It wasn’t until an ambulance pulled up that they realized something was wrong.
Russ died the following morning after slipping into a coma. When news of the death hit the African-American community, they staged a protest but were assured by the county sheriff that “justice would be done.”
In June, a 16-member grand jury with 14 whites and two blacks were assembled. An eyewitness said he saw no blows exchanged and that Ratliff simply shot Russ. The grand jury returned with an indictment for voluntary manslaughter, to the disappointment of the family and the NAACP.
The counsel further said that there should have been more Black people on the jury since the county makeup was split evening among Blacks and Whites. Arkansas NAACP state president Dr. Jerry Jewell wrote to the Justice Department asking for a federal investigation of the shooting but they did nothing.
In January 1972, an all-white jury took eight minutes to issue a “not guilty” verdict against Ratliff. The following year, Russ’ widow brought a wrongful death civil suit against Star City seeking $1 million. The suit alleged that the state trooper and Draper did nothing to prevent the violent outcome that led to Russ’ death.
In October 1975, a trial that featured Draper and several officials was essentially thrown out. Ratliff and the other defendants were acquitted of all charges and despite the efforts of the NAACP to get the case heard in a higher court, it didn’t happen.
In 1979, the Russ family was awarded $288,000 in damages but Ratliff had left the state and it was never paid. Another suit against the state went nowhere. Still, Russ has not been forgotten. The Lincoln County NAACP branch is named after him.
Russ’ sister established the Carnell Russ Day Community Unity Festival in Star City, which just finished wrapping up this past weekend. The event was held to heal rifts between Blacks and whites in the region.