ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — A couple of milestones for an Arkansas state prison inmate serving a life sentence without parole.
Rolf Kaestel turned 70 on June 2 — and in 93 days he has a clemency hearing scheduled for September.
Rolf D. Kaestel has been behind bars longer than his time spent as a free man.
The septuagenarian was convicted of aggravated assault and has been in prison for 40 years. He was found guilty of holding up a Fort Smith taco shop with a toy water pistol and robbing the place of $264, according to court records.
In June 1981, Kaestel began serving his sentence at the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) Cummins Unit in Lincoln County.
In 1999, he was transferred to a Utah prison under an Arkansas Interstate Compact.
No reason was given by the ADC for Kaestel’s transfer to Utah.
“The only information I’m permitted to give you on this inmate is what’s available on our website inmate search,” said ADC’s Communications Director Cindy Murphy.
A local documentary filmmaker has used the term “political prisoner” to describe the ADC inmate because he was the whistle-blower in Arkansas’ blood plasma scandal. The program began with good intentions in the 1960s but evolved into tainted blood being sold to pharmaceutical companies and blood brokers by the late 1970s. The contaminated blood was shipped globally — Canada, Japan, United Kingdom — killing and/or sickening thousands of people.
SOURCE: CALS ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ARKANSAS
The ADC launched a blood program in 1964 as a way to make money for both the prisons and the inmates, according to CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
In 1994, Arkansas became the last state to stop selling plasma extracted from prisoners.
Over the years, different agencies managed the program. The system became so corrupt that more than 1,000 Canadians who received the ADC plasma were infected with HIV, another 20,000 were infected with Hepatitis C.
In 1998, due to a class-action lawsuit, the Canadian government set a fund of $1.2 billion to compensate the victims after the Canadian Red Cross pleaded guilty for its role in the scandal. Another $875 million compensation was added in July 2006.
In England, the contaminated blood was given to hemophilia patients in the 1970s and 1980s. An investigation showed 1,757 deaths of more than 6,000 people who were infected. The blood extracted from Arkansas prisoners was connected to those infected in England.
A feature-length documentary film titled Factor 8: The Arkansas Prison Blood Scandal, directed and produced by Kelly Duda, was released in 2005. Duda interviewed Kaestel who shared [his] documentation about the lack of testing of Cummins Unit inmates for hepatitis C and HIV.
In 1999, after interviewing for the film, Kaestel was moved to the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison, Utah.
KAESTEL’S FINAL CLEMENCY REQUEST
Governor Asa Hutchinson has until September 3 to decide on Kaestel’s final clemency request. He was denied by Governor Beebe twice and Gov. Hutchinson in 2015.
The parole board has recommended clemency three times, most recently in 2020.
Arkansas State Representative Vivian Flowers (D) is a proponent of Kaestel getting clemency and would like to see Gov. Hutchinson grant the decision because she believes Kaestel has served his time.
“The parole board has given their recommendation, and that’s important, but the decision rests with the governor,” said Flowers. “He [Hutchinson] believes in second chances, he’s focused on criminal justice reform, and with the civil unrest that has happened … at this time justice can only be served and let [Kaestel] out as a free man.”
Another positive Rep. Flowers said about Kaestel is that he’s been a role model with not a negative action regarding his behavior and he has helped other inmates as a paralegal.
Rep. Flowers mentioned the prosecutor in Kaestel’s case is advocating for clemency, as is the victim of the crime.
“This is something you rarely see … the victim and the prosecutor are not objecting.”
The victim of the 1981 taco shop robbery, Dennis Schluterman, advocated for Kaestel’s release in 2014 to then-Governor Mike Beebe.
“He needs to be set free. I believe the state owes him, that’s just what I feel. It’s time for you to let him go … he should not spend another day in prison,” said Schluterman via YouTube. “This is heavy on my shoulders for quite some time.”