On Dec. 29, 1970, Arkansas’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Winthrop Rockefeller, announced that he would commute the sentences of all of Arkansas’s prisoners on death row.
“My position on capital punishment has been clear since long before I became governor,” Rockefeller wrote in a statement. “I am unalterably opposed to it and will remain so as long as I live. What earthly mortal has the omnipotence to say who among us shall live and who shall die? I do not. Moreover, in that the law grants me authority to set aside the death penalty, I cannot and will not turn my back on lifelong Christian teachings and beliefs, merely to let history run out its course on a fallible and failing theory of punitive justice.
“By authority vested in me as the 37th elected Governor of Arkansas I am today commuting to life imprisonment the death sentences of the fifteen prisoners now on death row at Tucker Prison Farm.
“The records, individually and collectively, of the fifteen condemned prisoners bear no relevance to my decision. It is purely personal and philosophical. I yearn to see other chief executives throughout the nation follow suit, so that as a people we may hasten the elimination of barbarism as a tool of American justice.
“The records of the men on death row, along with the findings and recommendations of an outstanding committee I have empanelled, will now be presented to members of the State Parole Board for their own consideration. I am aware that there will be reaction to my decision.
“However, failing to take this action while it is within my power, I could not live with myself.”
With these words Rockefeller emptied death row in Arkansas. His actions were widely felt in prison reform and capital punishment in the state, throughout the country and around the world. Arkansas would not see any further state executions for another 20 years.
From the outset of his time in office Rockefeller had firmly opposed capital punishment, telling the press, “We ourselves admit to failure when the only way we can cope with the problem is taking another man’s life.” In 1967, Rockefeller ordered the electric chair dismantled, and it was placed in storage. In a 1968 meeting with local leaders, he announced that all inmates on death row in Arkansas would be granted a stay of execution until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of capital punishment.
Rockefeller’s decision to commute the sentences provoked a wide range of responses, including 397 letters and telegrams sent to the governor’s office. Rockefeller’s personal papers at the Center for Arkansas History and Culture at the Arkansas Studies Institute in Little Rock contain all of the correspondence within the first month after the commutations. Of these, 324 items out of 397 were supportive.
International letters of support were sent from as far afield as Kenya, England, Germany, France and Canada. While events unfolded in Arkansas, similar issues were being addressed in Spain and Russia. After clemency pleas from Queen Elizabeth and Pope Paul VI, among others, General Francisco Franco commuted the death sentences of six Basques. Shortly after, two Jewish Russian citizens convicted of a skyjacking conspiracy also received commuted sentences. A telegram from Little Rock businessman and philanthropist Raymond Rebsamen sincerely thanked Rockefeller for setting a fine example for Franco and the Russians. An editorial published in the Arkansas Democrat proclaimed: “We hope it is significant that this and the commutation of the death sentences of the two Jews in Russia and the six Basques in Spain all have occurred just before the beginning of the New Year. Maybe it is a sign that 1971 will be the year of a changed attitude about death, even that killing on the battlefield will lose its popularity.”
But not everyone was pleased. A letter from a Paragould geography teacher asked, “Are you an American, Mr. Rockefeller? Or, are you a believer in Marxism? No American would condone these activities.” Arkansas resident Billy Earl Ramsey castigated Rockefeller by saying, “You are not a good Republican — you are not even an American.”
Many of the negative letters had religious undertones that expressed anger about Rockefeller’s official statement citing his religious beliefs as a motivator. One letter referred to Rockefeller as a “professing Christian” who was unaware of God’s laws, while others accused him of attempting to change them. Another letter, in a reference to Rockefeller’s alleged fondness for alcohol, read, “Have you ever heard of the word of God [?] … it will do you more good than a bottle of whiskey.”
Representing a disproportionate number, 11 of the 15 inmates who had their sentences commuted were African American. Rockefeller was well aware of the racial disparities in death sentencing. In a later interview, he said, “Knowing that I was going out of office in less than two weeks, and knowing that many — particularly in the black community — felt that their hopes lay in my attitudes and philosophies, I didn’t want to fade out of office and give them the feeling that I had forgotten them or that which I had stood for.”
Rockefeller received positive responses for the commutations because he explicitly tackled the thorny issue of race and criminal justice. For example, a reverend from an unidentified church in Clarksville wrote: “And when I found out that nine of the fifteen were black my gratitude for the governor’s action was greatly increased and my faith in the fairness of my state’s people and judicial system suffered a serious blow.”
Civil rights leaders in Arkansas uniformly congratulated Rockefeller on his decision. Howard Love, executive director of the Little Rock Urban League, predicted that Rockefeller’s decision itself would be rehabilitative for the commuted men, calling it “an act of wisdom and great moral courage.” Elijah Coleman, executive director of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations (ACHR), an organization formed to promote civil rights and equality between the races, praised Rockefeller’s action an act of humanitarianism. Coleman took it as evidence that, “a man’s race, wealth, and national origin has nothing to do with his concern with human problems and human life.”
Some praised Rockefeller’s public request that other governors follow his lead and commute death row prison sentences in their states. An editorial from the Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine commended Rockefeller, saying, “Governor Rockefeller has set a good example for other governors in this noteworthy action.” The Marked Tree Tribune also congratulated him: “Governor Rockefeller did what he thought Arkansas and the nation would remember him best by — that of bringing a new point of preparation for the 20th century growth into the subject of capital punishment … his programs have been urged to be followed by other state governors.”
Gov. Dale Bumpers later admitted that Rockefeller’s decision to commute sentences had saved him from having to make some potentially very difficult decisions when he succeeded him in office: “[He] saved me from some traumatic decisions … I was worried when I was campaigning that if I won, I might have to sign off on an execution. [But] I didn’t have to.”
There were other legal and political legacies to Rockefeller’s actions. Most notably, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun made mention of Rockefeller’s decision in his 1972 opinion in Furman v. Georgia. The case ruled on the constitutionality of capital punishment in relation to the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” and led to a national moratorium in carrying out death sentences until 1976. Blackmun said in his dissenting opinion, “And were I the chief executive of a sovereign State, I would be sorely tempted to exercise executive clemency as Governor Rockefeller of Arkansas did recently just before he departed from office.”
What happened to those 15 men whose sentences Rockefeller commuted back in 1970? A Dallas Morning News article in 2003 provided a status update: two of the prisoners had died in jail; four remained imprisoned; nine had been paroled; and some had been discharged after their parole ended. Only one paroled prisoner, Daniel Montgomery, was again convicted and sent back to prison.
Andrea Ringer is a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Public History master’s program and completed her thesis on Winthrop Rockefeller and the death penalty. She is currently enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Memphis.