Rockefeller and death row 

Governor commuted death sentences in 1970.

click to enlarge CAMPAIGNING IN 1966: Winthrop Rockefeller image
  • Courtesy UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture
  • CAMPAIGNING IN 1966: Winthrop Rockefeller

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."

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