“ARKANSAS SPARES ALL ON DEATH ROW,” read the New York Times headline.
On Dec. 29, 1970, with mere weeks left in his final term, Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller commuted the death sentences of 15 men awaiting execution in Arkansas. It was something no governor of any state had ever done before.
“What earthly mortal has the omnipotence to say who among us shall live and who shall die?” he said in a statement. “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 its course on a fallible and failing theory of punitive justice.”
Winthrop’s views on capital punishment were no secret. He was “unalterably opposed” to it and told reporters in 1966 that he didn’t think death was a solution, only an admission of failure “when the only way we can cope with the problem is taking another man’s life.”
By commuting the sentences of these 15 men, regardless of their crimes, he knew that he would receive backlash from some colleagues and members of the public.
“However, failing to take this action while it is within my power, I could not live with myself,” he said.
Winthrop went a step further on New Year’s Eve. Along with his son, Winthrop Paul, friends, and some staff, Winthrop visited Tucker Prison Farm to greet the inmates he saved from execution. In John Ward’s The Arkansas Rockefeller, his associates recalled Winthrop as “agonized” earlier that day. He had nothing to gain from this visit, politically speaking, and he had his own family to attend to during the holidays. Yet he spent the hours leading up to his arrival exhaustively preparing himself emotionally.
“It was the hardest place to be on New Year’s Eve, to wish people a Happy New Year behind bars,” Winthrop said. “I had never thought about it. What do you say?”
Well, he said this: “I am here to let you know I am thinking about you, and God bless.”
The men at Tucker Prison Farm rushed from the back of the barracks to greet the lame-duck governor. They flung their arms out between the bars just to shake his hand. Winthrop spent so much time with the inmates that his team worried they might not make it to their next stop.
“There sure as hell is time,” Winthrop said, and the group drove 50 miles that same night to visit all eight barracks of Cummins Prison in Lincoln County.
Apart from his beliefs about the death penalty, this final act as governor was in line with Winthrop’s views on the state’s prison system. Years prior, Winthrop had been appalled by reports that exposed Arkansas’s prison system to be corrupt and often brutal. He decided this would be one of his main objectives as governor. Winthrop implemented improved medical care, professional guards, better food, ended disciplinary barracks, and more.
Winthrop wanted to give the incarcerated hope and promise of a brighter future. He wanted to show that he cared about them and that they mattered. Through legislation and this historic trip, he encouraged the rehabilitation of Arkansas’s inmates and emphasized his lifelong belief that all people were worthy of redemption.
This is the first time to my remembrance that I’ve heard about this heroic act by then Governor Rockefeller. I cane across subscribed to this news letter because I liked the many services the Institution provides.
This article perhaps is why I maybe unknowingly was drawn to it. What a humane gesture. A man of such earthly riches having compassion and caring for the so called “least of us”.
Just wanted to share this.