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May 8, 2013

After 43 years, Arkansas wants fugitive back

WARREN, Mich. — Lester Stiggers has been a wanted man for 43 years, but he hasn’t been hiding.

He lives in a one-bedroom apartment, window blinds partly closed, along a busy road in a Detroit suburb. He gets by on $700 a month in Social Security benefits, usually making trips outside only to see a doctor. He needs an inhaler and 10 pills a day for his diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments.

A stocky man with thick arms, Stiggers grappled with sewer lines as a plumber until two strokes ended his working days, and also made his speech difficult to understand. He now passes time on the couch, bouncing a companion’s granddaughter on his lap while a children’s show glows from the TV.

Since he fled prison in Arkansas in 1970, Stiggers, a convicted murderer, has been a quirk of justice, living openly in one state while wanted in another. But his time as a free man may be coming to an end as the result of a twist in a decades-old saga involving the dark history of one state’s prison system and the social views of another state’s governor.

Stiggers was one of two young black men given asylum in Michigan in the 1970s by William Milliken, a Midwestern governor who believed in using his powers broadly to address injustice. The fugitives claimed they were victims of unfair treatment in the South.

The cases have largely been forgotten over the years and, until this spring, Stiggers thought he had been, too.

By sending a letter seeking Stiggers’ return, Arkansas abruptly renewed its efforts to bring him back to prison where he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life. And Michigan is considering it.

The man at the center of the tale is now 63. He was astounded when reporters from The Associated Press knocked on his door and told him of Arkansas’ request.

“I’m an invalid now. I’m half dead,” Stiggers said. “What would their interest be to have me back?”

Stiggers’ life is entwined with the history of Arkansas’ prisons in the 1960s. The brutality and horrific conditions were documented by penal reformer Thomas Murton and inspired the 1980 Robert Redford movie “Brubaker.”

Stiggers was sent to a state prison farm at the age of 15 after he was convicted of killing his father, whom he said beat him and his mother regularly.  Stiggers said he never talked about the abuse at his trial because his lawyer advised him not to testify. The AP couldn’t reach anyone involved in the trial.

When Stiggers was allowed a five-day furlough for good behavior — a privilege no longer available to those convicted of such serious crimes — he went to Michigan, where his mother lived. He’s been there ever since.

When Arkansas requested his return at the time, Milliken refused, citing, in part, the “cruel and unusual treatment” in Arkansas’ prisons.

At the sprawling Tucker prison farm where Stiggers was held, inmate “trusties” guarded prisoners working the fields. Stiggers said he was forced to pick cotton and endured beatings.

“I’d probably be dead right now,” Stiggers said, if he hadn’t absconded.

The year he fled, a federal judge, Jesse Smith Henley, declared the state’s entire prison system unconstitutional, writing: “In a very real sense, trusty guards have the power of life and death over other inmates.”

Milliken’s decision to rebuff Arkansas’ extradition request was in character for the moderate Republican who held the office from 1969 to 1982.  Milliken, a soft-spoken white businessman from the northern Michigan town of Traverse City, built a relationship with Detroit’s fiery black mayor, Coleman Young, and boosted state assistance to the city during a time of intense racial strife.

“No purpose would be served now by sending that man back,” Milliken, who is now 91, said in an interview. He said he does not remember Stiggers but, “Knowing how distressed I was about the shameful state of race relations in our country, I would have wanted to give that man another chance.”

Over the years, Arkansas made more requests for Stiggers’ return, but they were unsuccessful.

Michigan’s current governor is Republican Rick Snyder. A spokesman, Caleb Buhs, said Snyder has no timeline for reviewing the new request, which came after Stiggers’ Social Security benefits put him back on Arkansas’ radar.

M. Gerald Schwartzbach, who represented the fugitive years ago in Michigan, says it would be “an enormous tragedy” to incarcerate him now.

“How is this justice?” he asked.

Prisons officials in Arkansas say getting him back behind bars is a matter of principle.

“I understand the argument, ‘Well, he’s been out for all these years, he hasn’t reoffended,”’ said Shea Wilson, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Correction. “But the fact still remains that he was convicted of first-degree murder in Arkansas. He served a minimum of his sentence and he has been a fugitive from justice for all these years.”

Stiggers may be in trouble. The Supreme Court clarified extradition law in 1987, creating a precedent that forced Michigan to return Phillip Chance, a convicted murderer also given sanctuary by Milliken, to Alabama in 1996.

“To the extent that he deserves mercy, it’s up to Arkansas to show mercy.  Michigan’s hands are tied,” said Curt Benson, a law professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Stiggers said he has justified Michigan’s faith in him.

“I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t do nothin’,” he said during an hour-long interview. “I walked away from a lot of fights. ... They told me to stay out of trouble.”

Stiggers said his wife, Arnetta, died in 2010, and they had no children. He worked as a press operator for Chrysler for five years before becoming a plumber.

Retired, he lives with a companion, Delphine Hopkins, and they help each other keep track of their medications.

“One of us always has a doctor’s appointment,” she said.

In 43 years, Stiggers said, he’s never set foot outside the state he fled to — and he hopes he never will.

——

Nuss reported from Tucker, Ark., and White from Warren. Associated Press writer Mike Householder contributed reporting from Warren.

———

Follow Ed White at http://twitter.com/edwhiteAP and Jeannie Nuss at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss

For more on this story and other local news, subscribe to The Valdosta Daily Times e-Edition, or our print edition

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