Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"Purely Personal and Philosophical": Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller's Death Sentence Commutations

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"Purely Personal and Philosophical": Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller's Death Sentence Commutations

Article excerpt

On December 29, 1970, Arkansas governor Winthrop Rockefeller issued an announcement:

My position on capital punishment has been clear since long before I became governor. 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.1

As he anticipated, the lame-duck governor's decision to commute the sentences of everyone on death row in Arkansas (eleven black men and four white men) provoked a wide range of reactions, including 397 letters and telegrams sent to his office and now held with Rockefeller's personal papers at the Arkansas Studies Institute in Little Rock. Of the 397 responses, 324 supported Rockefeller and congratulated him for his courageous action. Arkansas residents accounted for slightly less than one-third of the congratulatory messages (ninety-two). The remainder came from other states or even other countries, including Kenya, England, Germany, France, and Canada. In contrast to the large number of positive messages, only seventy-three letters and telegrams contained unfavorable opinions. Among those, Arkansas residents again accounted for only around onethird (twenty-six) of the responses. Aside from the personal letters, editorials and letters to the editor in local newspapers also voiced strong opinions. The state's two major dailies, the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette, both based in Little Rock, not only commented on the commutations but also reprinted editorials from smaller Arkansas newspapers, providing a spectrum of opinion from across the state. This commentary both supported and condemned the governor's action.

Rockefeller would subsequently justify his action by citing public opinion. He firmly believed that he had been well within his constitutional authority to commute the sentences and noted the overwhelming support expressed in the letters he received. "The actions of the legislative and executive branches," he asserted, "can and should more readily reflect the public sentiment." Rockefeller went on to suggest the need for executive action on capital punishment even before the law had changed: "The legislative process takes time to catch up with the public sentiment.... [T]he fate of these people can be altered by the use of a device that has been virtually ignored as a means of abolishing the death penalty-executive clemency."2

Yet the response to Rockefeller's commutations reflected public opinion in a more complicated way, providing an intriguing snapshot of attitudes toward the death penalty during a period of transition. His actions came at the tail end of a period in which majority sentiment had opposed capital punishment. Public opinion polls showed support had declined to below 50 percent in the early part of the 1960s. …

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