How a Brutal Jail Death Exposes Arkansas’ ‘Punishing’ Justice System

Marshall Ray Price was beaten inside a county jail in northeast Arkansas. A year later, no one has been charged in his death.

Newsweek began probing criminal justice issues in Arkansas after reporting in January on the death of Larry Eugene Price, who starved to death in an Arkansas jail. His case is now the subject of a federal lawsuit.

Now, in a months-long, two-part investigation, Newsweek examines the case of Marshall Ray Price (no relation), who died after what officials say was a boxing match with another inmate. His case, for which his family is still seeking answers, illustrates what many said is a failing justice system in Arkansas that punishes the vulnerable for minor offenses, imposes long periods of incarceration before the accused face trial, and offers little protection for inmates in overcrowded and understaffed jails and prisons.

This is the first part of that investigation.

Barely breathing, his body bruised and organs failing, Marshall Ray Price died at 2:08 a.m. December 8, 2022, hours after being transported to the hospital from an Arkansas county jail.

Now, a year later, no one has been held accountable for his death.

Police and prosecutors say Price, convicted of trafficking an herb legal in most U.S. states, died days after boxing in a cell with another inmate at the Greene County Detention Center in northeastern Arkansas. An autopsy showed he had a collapsed lung, broken ribs, and a ruptured spleen. Price’s organs had bled out and his head had a one-inch gash. A state police investigation concluded Price, 46, suffered most of the injuries during the brief match with a fellow inmate, in which toilet paper and socks were used as gloves. More than half a dozen inmates who witnessed the incident told Newsweek that no more than three punches were exchanged. On a jail video reviewed by Newsweek, Price is seen sweeping the floors and appearing to move around in the common areas just fine in the days after the match.

The Arkansas State Police investigation, on which prosecutors relied in deciding not to charge anyone, was swift.

“The undisputed statements are that Mr. Price participated in a consensual boxing match with another inmate at the Greene County Jail,” Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Sonia F. Hagood wrote in a letter on March 14, 2023. “After a thorough review of the investigation into Mr. Price’s death, no criminal charges will be filed.”

An independent investigative expert who reviewed the case for Newsweek said the speed of the investigation raised too many questions to simply close the case. But the Arkansas State Police defended its work, saying the department was “confident the facts and evidence were examined with integrity and care.” Hagood also stood by her office’s investigation.

Sonia Hagood

Sonia Hagood, the Greene County prosecuting attorney, found there was no basis for criminal charges against anyone at the jail where Price collapsed and later died of internal bleeding from blunt force trauma. His injuries included a ruptured spleen.FACEBOOK PHOTO

From Price’s arrest for trafficking kratom, an herb used to help with drug withdrawal, to the harsh punishment meted out at sentencing and his in-custody death, critics say the case is emblematic of a flawed criminal justice system in a state that sits at or near the bottom on many measures in a nation that has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The problems in the state are mirrored across much of rural America, particularly the South, where legal systems operating on a tough-on-crime philosophy prosecute heavily for minor offenses, incarcerate people in local jails for long periods before they face trial, give the poor little chance of defending themselves and provide little protection for those in overcrowded and understaffed jails and prisons where inmates are forced to pay steep fines and fees for their own detention and probation. Exacerbating the hardship for the incarcerated, health care is nearly absent in many facilities.

Price’s sister and daughter claim that Price would have survived if EMS had been called to the jail earlier on December 7. Price’s family said his injuries were inconsistent with law enforcement accounts of how he died from the boxing match three days earlier, noting the autopsy reviewed by Newsweek shows Price died of “recent blunt force trauma.”

Months after Price’s death, Newsweek traveled across Arkansas, speaking with inmates, those formerly incarcerated, their families, residents, law enforcement officials, judges, attorneys and prosecutors. Reporters heard story after story about a broken state system that amplifies the problems with criminal justice seen across the nation.

“The Marshall Price case is one of the most representative cases of the jail and prison industrial complex in Arkansas, starting with the charges and prosecution of Mr. Price, for a non-violent, victimless crime,” said Belle Starr of the Arkansas Justice Project, which tracks abuses in the state’s law enforcement and correctional fields and pushes out findings via the organization’s Facebook site.

Starr said the state pursuing Price’s case with “every available resource over a gas station supplement” is telling of a failed justice system.

“The people who are incarcerated are our expendables,” said retired Pulaski County Judge Wendell Griffen, who left the bench in December 2022 and was not a part of Price’s case. ”The criminal justice system in Arkansas is set up to punish, and it punishes whether the punishment is just or not.”

What is Kratom?

Kratom is an herb (its species is Mitragynia speciousa korth) native to Southeast Asia that can cause opioid- and stimulant-like effects, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is often consumed as a tea.

Withdrawal treatment: Many people have used kratom in an effort to treat the withdrawal symptoms associated with quitting drugs. The Mayo Clinic warns that more research is needed, and that some people can become dependent on kratom itself. Though 36 deaths have been associated with it, the National Institute On Drug Abuse has called for more research into the herb’s potential for addiction treatment.

Usage in the US: Among people aged 12 or older in 2021, an estimated 1.7 million Americans reported using kratom in the prior 12 months, according to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Legality: While the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any uses for kratom, it is legal in 44 states. Among the six states where it is illegal, three are considering legalizing and regulating it.

Background: Kratom is used as a medicinal herb in many parts of the world. Its components – mitragynin and 7-hydroxymitragynine – activate the same receptors in the brain that respond to opioids, according to a 2008 study published in the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. A 2020 study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found kratom has strong potential as a treatment option for opioid withdrawal.

Arkansas, a state that is heavily Republican and becoming more so, has the fifth highest per-capita incarceration rate in the U.S., according to the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative. Arkansas’ rate—942 per 100,000—is about a third higher than the American average of 664 per 100,000 and was topped only by Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Georgia, according to a study by the initiative in 2021.

Critics say the situation only promises to get tougher with the “Protect Arkansas Act” signed by Republican Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders on September 16, which, among other things, removes the possibility of parole for those convicted of the most serious crimes and means other felons will stay incarcerated longer.

Sanders and the chairman of the Arkansas Board of Corrections, Benny Magness, are already at odds over the board’s refusal to approve a temporary expansion of the prison system’s capacity by 622 beds. Magness said the state hasn’t provided enough staffing and resources to accommodate such an expansion.

When asked about criticism of the justice system, the governor’s spokeswoman said Sanders had made it a priority to address criminal justice as well as advocacy for victims of crime.

“The Protect Act uses proven practices to keep violent offenders off the streets and offers new programs and trainings, such as skills development and substance abuse treatment, to better prepare inmates for reentry,” the spokeswoman, Alexa Henning, told Newsweek.

Joe Profiri, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, told Newsweek the state was being “smart on crime” and that the new law would help.

“I absolutely don’t believe that Arkansas is in a numbers game of locking up as many people as they can,” Profiri added. “They’re locking up the people engaged in conduct that the judiciary has expressed require incarceration.”

The Stop

Price’s fate was set in motion early on May 5, 2021. Around midnight, after work, the one-time standout student and athlete was headed to his house in Paragould, Arkansas, after stopping by the Missouri border shop of Mr. T’s Riverside in Cardwell to purchase kratom. It had become a monthly trip, as the herb was helping him stay off of heroin. But Price wasn’t supposed to be driving; his license had been suspended for years after he fell behind on child support payments.

After being followed for several miles by a Greene County Sheriff’s deputy, Price was pulled over for a faulty license plate illuminator that wasn’t actually broken. He was later acquitted of that charge at trial when evidence showed the taillight illuminator was not broken, raising questions about the reason for the officer’s stop.

Ultimately, the license suspension further justified the police search of his vehicle, as well as bringing a charge of driving without a license. The search turned up .8 ounces of marijuana and four packages totaling 366 grams of kratom – an herb that is legal in all but six U.S. states. In Arkansas, possessing more than 200 grams brings a trafficking charge, so Price was charged with trafficking.

Price’s license had been suspended for 17 years because of back child support he owed, an infraction that critics like Starr said traps people in a state justice system for the most minor offenses. While he made monthly child support payments all those years, he couldn’t keep up, and by the time of his arrest he was down to a debt of $2,500, mostly in fines for late payments.

Price, whose addiction began in his mid-20s, kept driving in the rural state despite not having a license for many reasons. It was his only way to keep his job as a manager and bartender at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Jonesboro, 22 miles from his home. No buses run between his house and the VFW. He also drove to shop for essentials and for his monthly trip to purchase kratom.

The herb is what kept Price’s heroin addiction at bay, meaning, “my boy was back,” said his mother, Sharon Rose Rivera.

An ‘Aggressive’ System

Arkansas aggressively levies fines and fees against those in custody. Critics say the state stands out for pursuing arrest warrants for those unable to pay, with fines sometimes levied without defense counsel present. The system charges for public defenders, interest for using a payment plan and late fees that can be four or more times the original fine or fee. Below are two examples.

White County
White County, in the central part of the state, penalizes people for missing a minimum monthly payment of $100 with an additional fine of $450-670, as well as the possibility of arrest and incarceration.

Pulaski County: Sherwood District Court

Until 2017, fines were often handed down in Sherwood District Court without an attorney present to represent anyone arrested for offenses under the state’s “Hot Check Law.” Defendants had to complete a “waiver of counsel” form before they were allowed to appear before a judge to fight charges related to writing bad checks. Revenues from court fines and forfeitures were estimated to reach $2.3 million, the third-highest revenue source after city and county sales tax.

Source: Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

Having a driver’s license suspended hits hardest in poor and minority communities, justice advocates say. It’s particularly tough in a rural state like Arkansas, where jobs are often far-flung, and the poverty rate is about 15.3 percent. Depending on the poll, that’s 5th or 6th in the nation and nearly 4 points above the U.S. poverty rate of 11.6 percent.

“A lot of people continue to drive because they have no choice,” said Joanna Weiss, co-executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center based in New York. “The next time they’re pulled over, now they have a criminal record for driving on a suspended license—more fines and fees, possible jail time, and the inability to pay just sucks you further into the system.”

The situation is worse in Arkansas than elsewhere because law enforcement across the state pursues arrest warrants for people driving on suspended licenses and jails people for nonpayment, Weiss said.

According to the End Justice Fees campaign, which studies costs for people who face criminal and procedural charges, Arkansas tops U.S. states when it comes to fees charged to suspects or inmates—with fees for being on parole, on probation, for electronic monitoring, for the issuing of criminal warrants, for a suspect’s public defense counsel, court costs and potentially jail stays.

“In Arkansas, thousands have been jailed, often repeatedly, for weeks or even months at a time, simply because they are poor and cannot afford to pay court costs, fines and fees. They face numerous collateral consequences in addition to loss of freedom, including loss of employment, homelessness, and some have lost custody of their children,” according to a report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law titled, “Too Poor to Pay: How Arkansas’ Offender-funded Justice System Drives Poverty & Mass Incarceration.”

Courts can show discretion on fines and fees to help the poor, but judges often do not, the report found. As a result, thousands of people have landed in Arkansas jails on “process-based” charges: Failure to pay, failure to appear, and contempt—all of which result in even more fines and penalties.

The True Cost of Arkansas Fines and Fees

Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, the Republican sponsor of the Protect Arkansas Act, acknowledged that fines and fees are problematic in Arkansas. But he said the new law seeks to address this by giving former prisoners more time to start paying parole fines and fees, and it allocates $4.6 million for diversion programs and alternative courts that would put fewer people in jail.

“What we want to do for non-violent offenders is to divert them from ever entering the prison population to begin with,” he said.

Critics say the money is not enough and pales in comparison to what Arkansas is spending on prisons. The Arkansas Sentencing Commission estimated the Protect Arkansas Act—which would add 3,000 beds to the state’s prison capacity—would result in more than $163.8 million in costs over the next 10 years, with only 3 percent going to diversionary programs.

Price’s family said that getting a break—on the fees related to child support or for his addiction—could have made a huge difference for him. If the state of Arkansas viewed kratom as a drug, Price should also have been eligible for addiction treatment, his family added.

The Representation

After his traffic stop and arrest, Price landed in Greene County Circuit Court, where his bond was set without a defense attorney present at $25,000. Price, unable to afford bail, borrowed money from his sister and mother, who paid a bail bondsman to get him out of jail pending follow-up hearings and trial.

Price had little contact with his public defender ahead of any of the hearings leading up to, and just prior to, his one-day trial, due in part to the high volume of cases his part-time public defender had at the time. His public defender, James ”Jay” Scurlock, estimates two days were set aside with Price to prep for the trial. Price was also assessed a $250 fee for his public defender.

The Trial

Price’s case made it to trial in November 2022, 18 months after his arrest and on the last day prosecutors could present their case without Price’s charges being dismissed.

That day, Circuit Court Judge Randy Philhours barred Price’s public defender from entering any testimony or evidence about the role kratom played in his four-year recovery from opioid addiction, or studies showing it has successfully been used for that purpose.

Price also was barred from introducing evidence suggesting he should have never been stopped by deputies in the first place because the license plate illuminator was working. He was prohibited from telling the jury that kratom was sold legally on the Missouri border, just several minutes from his house by car.

Scurlock said Philhours sided with the state’s argument that the evidence was irrelevant to prove the charges of trafficking kratom.

“The state did their job,” said Scurlock, referring to the pretrial exclusion of evidence. “They fought for their client, which is the state of Arkansas…For us, it was an uphill battle.”

The evidence, had it been allowed, may have resulted in a hung jury, Scurlock said, or at least “created for interesting jury discussions.”

It took one day of mostly prosecution evidence being presented before the jury returned a guilty verdict on the drug trafficking charge, at which point jurors were informed that Price was facing up to 25 years to life, with a minimum of 10 years. The jury, according to Scurlock, “made an audible gasp” at hearing the sentencing guidelines.

The jury had also never heard that the amount of kratom Price was bringing home—366 grams, or about four-fifths of a pound—is a typical personal monthly supply for someone who is taking 12 grams per day to stave off opioid withdrawal, said Mac Haddow, a senior fellow on policy at the American Kratom Association.

All Schedule I substances are treated the same in Arkansas when it comes to quantity: 200 or more grams is considered trafficking in the state and comes with a minimum 10-year sentence.

Among the six states where kratom is illegal, Arkansas and Alabama appear to be the outliers that are arresting and sentencing people for significant periods of time, Haddow said.

The Sentence

Prosecutors had asked for 25 years to life in Price’s case. He was given the minimum of 10 years.

Sentences for many crimes in Arkansas are harsher than those in other states.

Marshall Price 5

Outside a family home in Paragould, Arkansas, signs are posted calling for justice in the death of Marshall Ray Price, 46, who died three weeks into his sentence for trafficking kratom, an herb that is illegal in the state.MATT WHITE

For example, state law holds that possession of any quantity of any drug and a gun at the same time— whether the firearm is legally licensed or not—is a felony on the same level as first-degree murder, rape or armed robbery. People with no criminal history face 10-40 years, while someone with priors will face life in prison plus potentially centuries of time on top of that.

In many other states, simultaneous possession is a charge that doesn’t exist—and when it does, it doesn’t typically carry as lengthy a sentence. For example, in Virginia, simultaneous possession is a Class 6 felony—the lowest level felony in the state—and comes with a sentence of 1-5 years in prison, or up to one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500.

Drug laws, across the board, are tough in Arkansas. For example, the law against dealing methamphetamine covers possession between 10-200 grams of the drug. Those found guilty face sentences between 6 and 30 years. This matters because most people charged under that law possess much closer to 10 grams, indicative of someone supporting their habit, rather than the larger quantities typically held by dealers. Yet many get decades-long sentences for relatively low quantities. Critics of the justice system argue that addiction treatment could be an alternative that would help them while also keeping jail and prison populations down.

Price’s defender said the way kratom was designated under Arkansas law was unfortunate.

“I know ignorance of the law is no excuse, but in Texarkana you can legally buy enough kratom on the Texas side, walk across the street and be guilty of a Y felony. I think that’s part of what Marshall had a very hard time understanding,” Scurlock said.

Barely three weeks after Price was sentenced, he was dead.

Eric Ferkenhoff can be reached at Find him on Twitter @EricFerk

Valerie Bauman can be reached at Find her on Twitter @valeriereports

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