AFTER LIVING WITH THE TRAGEDY OF HIS MOTHER’S MURDER, MILLER COUNTY CHIEF DEPUTY PROSECUTING ATTORNEY CHARLES “CHUCK” BLACK SERVES DAILY TO BRING CRIMINALS TO JUSTICE
by ELLEN ORR
On May 11, 1994, the state of Arkansas made gruesome history as the first state to perform a “double execution”—to put to death two death-row inmates on the same day—since the 1977 re-legalization of capital punishment. The first inmate, Jonas Whitmore, died for a heinous crime he’d undoubtedly committed eight years prior: the murder of 62-year-old Essie Mae Black. In a nearby room in the penitentiary sat 43-year-old Charles “Chuck” Black, waiting for the news that the lethal injection had done its job, that his mother’s murder had at last been avenged.
At the time of the tragedy, Chuck was a young attorney, having worked as the deputy prosecutor in Montgomery County, Arkansas, since his graduation from law school in 1980, six years prior. His mother, the county circuit clerk and the first woman to ever hold an elected office in Montgomery County, swore him in.
When he accepted the position, it was not his ideal job; he had dreamt of being “the next F. Lee Bailey,” he said—or, in other words, a rock star criminal defense attorney. But small-town Arkansas wasn’t rife with legal employment opportunities, so he applied for, was offered, and accepted the prosecuting job when it serendipitously opened up right after he passed the bar exam. “With one minor exception, I never was the crackerjack defense attorney I’d dreamt of being,” Chuck said, “because I learned real quickly what the real world was like.”
On the afternoon of August 14, 1986, Chuck received a call from the sheriff’s office: an ambulance was at his parents’ house. He jumped in his Ford Bronco and “wasted no time getting there,” figuring that his “dad had finally worked himself into the grave” (had a heart attack). But when he pulled up to a state trooper car in the driveway behind the ambulance, he knew something even grimmer was at hand. An officer walked up to him. “It’s your mother,” he said. “It looks like she’s been murdered.” As Chuck headed for the front door, the officer warned him, “You don’t want to see this.” But Chuck insisted.
He walked into his childhood home to find his mother’s blood on the walls and ceiling, torso mutilated, throat slit, face carved. “My mind was just refusing to accept what my eyes were seeing,” Chuck recalls. “I remember asking, ‘Is she dead? Is she dead?’” He was in complete shock. Just hours earlier, he had spoken to her on the phone; she’d called to invite him to supper—potato soup.
Chuck couldn’t sit still, surrounded by grief and sympathy; instead, he had “tunnel vision” that allowed him to see only vengeance. “Like a mule with blinders on, I had my mind set on finding out who’d slaughtered my mother like that, and then even after we found it out, my mind was dead set on making sure they got what was coming to ‘em,” he said.
A neighbor had reported seeing a suspicious vehicle around the time of the murder: an old green Chevrolet truck. Another report had it headed to Hot Springs. Chuck and a friend hit the road. They searched for the truck, and then for bloody clothes they figured would have been ditched somewhere near. Their efforts were thwarted when Chuck’s friend, who was the game warden, was called away for work. He dropped Chuck back off at the house, and soon thereafter, a couple Black family cousins pulled up, wanting to help. Chuck sent them to take over the search for the clothes.
They quickly found a clothing label—Azar’s Men’s Store—in the middle of a logging road. Thirty feet away, on the far side of a large pine tree, was a stack of blood-soaked garments, including a large men’s suit. They hurried back to tell Chuck, who called the police, and they all went back out to further inspect the area. Chuck found a salmon deboning knife—the knife—nearby, under a bush.
Azar’s Men’s Store was a small retailer in Montgomery, Alabama. As their records indicated they’d made alterations to it, the store owners were able to determine to whom they’d sold the now-evidential suit: a woman had purchased it for her husband, but he had now been deceased for quite some time. She, the sheriff uncovered, had donated the suit to a charity organization, which happened to keep a record of donation recipients. They provided the sheriff with a name: Jonas Whitmore.
Chuck immediately got to work on an arrest warrant. Whitmore, whose driver’s license address placed him in Arkansas, was found in Montana, his location betrayed by the change-of-address he filed with the Social Security Administration.
In the months leading up to the trial, Chuck worked the case along with the investigators, although he did so unofficially. He contacted every law enforcement officer in the nation who he determined had had contact with Whitmore; he ended up with hundreds of pages detailing Whitmore’s criminal past. Through the investigation and eventual trial, it was made fairly clear that Whitmore was a serial killer, who lived “life as a robbing, thieving murderer of defenseless old women.”
And, just about every day after work, he would drive 40 miles one-way to the Garland County Law Library to conduct further research. “A friend of mine in Hot Springs had secured a key to the law library for me to use for research at night, long after regular visitors to the law library had gone home for the night,” Chuck said. “I would take my Mr. Coffee maker with me, and saw many midnights pass during my long hours of research.” He was determined to prevent any errors at trial that would delay or derail justice.
In the end, it took the jury nine minutes to convict Whitmore of murder, and only 45 to sentence him to execution. A relatively short seven years later, he was put to death.
A trauma so encompassing, Chuck’s experience had the potential to break him as a prosecutor. For one, risk of burnout was high, as he was spending all hours on his mother’s case. For another, there was at one point fright that the crime had been a revenge killing, a theory spurred by the “X” Whitmore had cut into Mrs. Black’s cheek. “There for about a month, I had to go to bed every night thinking someone had butchered my mother because of something I’d done,” Chuck recalled. “You don’t know what kind of misery that put me through.” (This theory was later disproven.)
The experience also had the potential to shape him as a prosecutor—to further impassion him, to grant him more capacity for empathizing with victims and victims’ families. Anyone who has seen Chuck in court can report that the second scenario proved true. Now Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Miller County for the last four years, Chuck serves daily to bring criminals to justice and to fulfill our societal need for vengeance that he once experienced firsthand.