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After 43 years, Arkansas wants fugitive back

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 7, 2013 at 1:37 pm •  Published: May 7, 2013
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WARREN, Mich. (AP) — 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."

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