It was a typically overcast December afternoon in 1970, atypical only in that it was one of the final afternoons in the four-year tenure of Winthrop Rockefeller.
Just days remained before Arkansas’s first post-Reconstruction Republican governor would surrender the office to Dale Bumpers, the Democrat who had unseated him. Bob Shaw of the Associated Press and I were hanging out in Rockefeller’s reception room at the Capitol, passing time. One of Rockefeller’s senior assistants, Les Hollingsworth, who handled penal affairs, strolled through and stopped to chat. Shaw brought it up, almost casually: Since Rockefeller, in his three gubernatorial campaigns, had made clear his opposition to the death penalty, might he possibly have an announcement before leaving office?
Off the record? Hollingsworth smiled. Okay, we said.
Hollingsworth allowed that Rockefeller indeed might have something to say. Anything more we would have to get from the man himself.
The governor was due at the Capitol in an hour or so. The Democrats for Rockefeller, led by Little Rock’s redoubtable Margaret Kolb, were to present him a plaque honoring his contributions to a better Arkansas, no matter that most of his program had been scuttled by the overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly. Rockefeller, predictably, was hours late. Finally, in the early evening, he arrived. Shaw and I sped to Rockefeller’s side and put the question to him. Without a moment’s hesitation, he confirmed that he would spare the 15 men on Arkansas’s Death Row, commute their sentences to life imprisonment. About a week later, in the most emotionally charged ceremony of the age, Rockefeller put his hand to the necessary documents. No one who was there could ever forget the resolve in his eye, nor the tremor in his voice:
“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 its course on a fallible and failing theory of punitive justice.”
Thus did Rockefeller excuse his successor from the agony of clemency decisions, for which Bumpers would repeatedly express gratitude. He could thank the U.S. Supreme Court as well: as Bumpers was seeking his second term, with Arkansas prosecutors still pursuing death sentences, the justices outlawed capital punishment. Or so it was assumed.
Four years later, in 1976, the Court re-opened the door to the execution chamber, specifying the trial procedures necessary to impose the ultimate sanction. Arkansas and most other states rushed to comply. Public opinion demanded it.
Rockefeller’s compassion would not be duplicated.
Inmate appeals kept life-or-death decisions from David Pryor, who followed Bumpers to the statehouse, but the tempest bedeviled the next governor.
Bill Clinton annoyed prosecutors and angered many legislators, and not a few voters, with his reluctance to schedule executions. Regaining the office after losing it in 1980 to Frank White, who had made capital punishment a cornerstone of his campaign, Clinton no longer hesitated. On his watch were sent to the beyond four inmates.
The pace accelerated as accumulated appeals were resolved. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker’s four years saw seven executions, including the nation’s first “double,” followed by a “triple,” the latter event, especially, attracting global attention, none of it complimentary. Sixteen inmates took the needle during the Mike Huckabee decade, with its own “double” and “triple,” but by then other states, especially Texas, were imposing capital punishment with such regularity that a somber banality surrounded each execution. Until …
Until bungled executions in three states left even hardened prison staff aghast. The failure of the three-drug “cocktail,” the same as employed in Arkansas, to prevent constitutionally impermissible pain spawned yet more litigation, all of it thus far futile.
Now another Arkansas governor has signed death warrants — eight, to be effected over ten days — and the attendant negative publicity is but a harbinger of what will follow. Like his predecessors, Asa Hutchinson is uncomfortable with the issue, would be happy if the courts would intervene in the inmates’ behalf, would relieve him of the “duty” that only Rockefeller interpreted differently, for certainly the General Assembly will not. The legislature has never shied from molding the state’s death penalty statutes to accommodate legal imperatives, though Mr. Hutchinson’s predecessor, not long before leaving office, expressed a wish that it would.
Mike Beebe the candidate supported capital punishment. Mike Beebe the (lame duck) Governor confessed to having “evolved” on the issue. As will be demonstrated this month, Beebe, like Rockefeller, was ahead of the curve.