Setting the Record Straight on State v. John Ingram Purtle: Reflections on the Great Dissenter

By Samuel A. Perroni | 34 U. ARK. LITTLE ROCK L. REV. 135 (2011).

Justice John Ingram Purtle was elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1978.  During his tenure, Justice Purtle wrote nearly twice as many opinions as his fellow Justices.  Justice Purtle was known as a frequent dissenter, authoring 859 majority or concurring opinions and 470 dissenting opinions.

The author of this article, along with Bill R. Wilson, Jr., represented Justice Ingram Purtle of the Arkansas Supreme Court in a criminal conspiracy case in 1979.  Justice Purtle was charged in a conspiracy to commit arson for profit.   The extensive publicity made it impossible to choose an impartial jury in Pulaski County, requiring the case to be moved to Perry County.

In this article, the author relates the story of Justice Purtle’s dramatic two-week trial.  The trial was filled with fiery objections, passionate argument, slashing cross-examinations, surprising courtroom strategies, visible jury reactions, interesting conspiracy issues and a clash of experts.  Justice Purtle was acquitted on March 23, 1986.

Justice Purtle served undeterred on the Arkansas Supreme Court for three years after his acquittal.    In his final year, he explained his judicial philosophy to a report as trying to “protect the Constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights from the courts.”  Perhaps Justice Purtle’s philosophy had been partially shaped by his prosecution.  For he now knew for a certainty how much a biased trial judge or an intellectually dishonest appellate judge can determine the outcome of a criminal case and whether someone goes to prison unjustly.

The author concludes with a plea that Justice Purtle be remembered for what he did in life—not the accusations lodged against him.


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