By JON GAMBRELL
Associated Press Writer
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Betsey Ross Wright, a former chief of staff for then-Gov. Bill Clinton, zealously defended Arkansas death-row inmates and often irritated state officials with her demands to film executions and get better food for prisoners.
Wright's advocacy channeled the same intensity she brought to her politics when she beat back the "bimbo eruptions" surrounding Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, her term for the rumors that Clinton had had extramarital affairs.
Now her prison advocacy is in jeopardy as she faces felony charges accusing her of attempting to sneak tattoo needles and potential weapons onto death row at the state's Varner Unit, about 90 miles southeast of Little Rock. But the May 22 incident isn't the first time the outspoken 66-year-old, who considers herself a friend to a death-row inmate involved in another smuggling scheme, supposedly broke contraband rules.
Wright worked for Clinton as a chief of staff and a campaign manager for six years, resigning in 1989. Afterward, Clinton allowed four executions in the state.
Calls to a Clinton spokesman at his foundation's office in New York were not returned Thursday.
Wright agreed to help Clinton during his 1992 campaign, but remained a vocal death-penalty opponent. She became a close friend of Don William Davis, who was convicted of the 1990 slaying of Jane Daniel, of Rogers, Ark.
When Davis faced a scheduled execution in 2006, Wright put out a statement on his behalf, urging then-Gov. Mike Huckabee to allow witnesses to see more of his execution. The statement also suggested reporters at the execution be allowed to use tape recorders and cameras.
Huckabee denied the request and Davis' execution later was called off.
Jeff Rosenzweig, a Little Rock lawyer representing Wright, said she often interceded on behalf of other inmates over issues ranging from food and heat to claims of guard abuse.
"These people on death row are incredibly unpopular," Rozensweig said, "but she's someone with the stature to be heard by the prison guards."
But Davis has a history with contraband. In 1995, when the state's Tucker Unit housed death row, an Arkansas State Police investigation claimed Davis helped lead a massive contraband operation there that smuggled in drugs, weapons and booze. Police found tools that could be used in an escape in Davis' cell, like wire cutters, pliers and a hacksaw blade. Troopers also found a priest's cassock and part of a karate uniform.
On May 22, a guard stopped Wright after noticing a small knife and a box cutter attached to her keychain, prison officials said. She also had an ink pen containing tweezers with sharpened edges and a Doritos bag with 48 tattoo needles in it, officials said.
An Arkansas State Police report shows Wright claimed she found the Doritos bag lying in the bottom of a prison vending machine and told guards, "I guess you don't get nothing free."
Wright has denied the charges. However, prison spokeswoman Dina Tyler said a paperwork error granted Wright the opportunity that day for a "contact visit" with an inmate "she regularly visited" - presumably Davis. Typically, visitors speak to death-row inmates separated by a glass pane; contact visits allow the inmate and visitor to be in the same room.
Wright had another run-in with prison officials in early 2005. Then, Tyler said, a guard noticed what appeared to be money - a contraband item.
Wright snatched it away and ran outside with it, the spokeswoman said. "She would not let us search her car, so her visitation was suspended" for six months, Tyler said.
Rosenzweig said he knew nothing about the 2005 incident.
But before that, the prison system had its eyes on Wright. Tyler acknowledged prison officials played lawmakers tapes in 2004 of some of her telephone conversations with death-row inmates, including Davis. Tyler didn't remember the tapes' content, but said officials played them for legislators privately to show them the prison didn't have problems with its phone lines.
Rosenzweig said Wright has been an "irritant" to prison officials, but declined to discuss the charges against her. He did say guards exercise a lot of discretion in how they handle people entering the prison with contraband. Generally, Rosenzweig said, guards allow a person to return to his or her car to deposit the contraband, whether it be cigarettes or a cellular phone.
However, Tyler said Wright wasn't targeted by prison officials, even though she was long known to guards.
"She was treated no differently than anybody else, be it a visitor or staff, who was caught red-handed trying to smuggle something in," the spokeswoman said.