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The death penalty was practiced in Arkansas even before the state was admitted to the Union in 1836. According to the Arkansas News, “during the American Revolution several members of the garrison at Arkansas Post were convicted of having plotted on behalf of the English to massacre all the soldiers at the Post. They were executed by a firing squad in New Orleans.” These executions mark the first recorded death sentences for crimes committed in Arkansas. As of 2010, the Arkansas criminal code provides for the death penalty or life without parole upon conviction of capital murder or treason. Those convicted of rape were also subject to the death penalty until January 1, 1976, prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Coker v. Georgia that a death sentence for rape of an adult woman was disproportionate to the crime and violated the Eighth Amendment.
The first Arkansas penitentiary was authorized in 1838. Shortly thereafter, the state purchased ninety-two acres for $12 per acre and authorized $80,500 to construct the prison. It began operation in 1841 on the site of the current state capitol, a location that was then west of the Little Rock (Pulaski County) city limits. Convict labor was used to build it. There were relatively few beds because most of the convicts were leased to plantation owners, farmers, manufacturers, mining companies, and others who were responsible for their housing, food, healthcare, and security. The system not only paid for the cost of the penitentiary but also provided a surplus to the state treasury most years. However, over the years, a number of scandals arose over the treatment of convict labor. The most egregious was in 1880 when twenty percent of the convicts died while on contract. The practice finally ended in 1913, when the Arkansas General Assembly undertook a penitentiary reform effort. Another aspect of this reform was the centralization of executions at the State Penitentiary in Little Rock. Previously, prisoners were sentenced to death in the county where they were convicted. The law specified that electrocution was to be used to carry out the death sentence.
Isaac Parker, a two-term Republican congressman from Missouri, was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant as the federal judge for the Western District of Arkansas in 1875. The district had jurisdiction over the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). During his twenty-one-year tenure, Judge Parker tried 344 capital cases and sentenced 160 men to death by hanging. Only seventy-nine were actually hanged; the rest died in jail, had their sentences overturned on appeal, or were pardoned. Parker favored the abolition of the death penalty but felt he had to adhere strictly to the letter of the law.
The last execution by hanging occurred at the Paris (Logan County) jail on July 15, 1914. John Arthur Tillman had been convicted of killing his girlfriend, then putting her body in a well and filling the well with stones.
The first man to die under the new law calling for electrocution to be used was Lee Sims from Prairie County. The last prisoner to be electrocuted was John Edward Swindler on June 13, 1990. Swindler was also the first execution since 1964.
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled capital punishment as practiced in Georgia to be unconstitutional (Furman v. Georgia), a ruling that effectively suspended capital punishment laws throughout the United States. The Arkansas Gazette reported on June 30, 1972, that “Old Sparky,” the chair used for electrocutions in Arkansas, had been found stored in a closet at Tucker Intermediate Reformatory, saying, “The diesel engine used to produce the high voltage for electrocutions is stored in the prison garage.” The death penalty was reenacted in Arkansas in 1977 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gregg v. Georgia in 1976 affirmed the new procedures adopted by the State of Georgia.
In 1983, the Arkansas General Assembly adopted lethal injection as the method of execution. Anyone convicted before that law was enacted could choose electrocution or lethal injection. Charles Singleton was the last inmate with that choice. He chose lethal injection and died on January 6, 2004.
The Arkansas law provides that capital murder charges are to be tried in Circuit Court with mandatory review by the Arkansas Supreme Court. Conviction will result in one of two sentences: death by lethal injection or life in prison without possibility of parole. The trial is conducted in two phases—guilt/innocence and penalty. The jury must vote unanimously to impose the death penalty. Otherwise, the trial judge must impose life without parole.
In 1993, the criminal code was amended to create a mitigating circumstance for mental retardation in capital murder cases. The prosecutor must prove that a person with an intelligence quotient (IQ) of sixty-five or less knows the difference between right and wrong. This change in the law occurred in large part due to public reaction to the execution of Rickey Ray Rector on January 24, 1992. Apparently not understanding his situation, Rector left a piece of pecan pie from his last meal and remarked that he would eat it later, after the execution.
The governor has the power to grant clemency. Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, who declared a moratorium on executions when he took office in 1967, granted clemency to all fifteen men on death row on December 29, 1970. Clemency has been granted to a death row inmate only once since the death penalty was reestablished in 1977. Governor Mike Huckabee commuted the death sentence of Bobby Ray Fretwell on February 5, 1999. “I had rather face the anger of the people than the wrath of God,” Huckabee said of his decision.
Records kept since 1913 show that 195 inmates have been executed in Arkansas: fifty-seven white males, one white female, 134 black males, one Hispanic male, and two male Native Americans. According to Marlin Shipman, “The decade of the 1930s produced more state-sanctioned killing in Arkansas than any other decade during the twentieth century. Fifty-three men were electrocuted in the state’s electric chair.” As of March 2010, forty-one men are on death row, which is located at the Varner SuperMax Prison south of Grady (Lincoln County).
The death penalty continues to draw support from both political parties and a majority of the citizens of Arkansas. Bill Clinton returned from campaigning in the New Hampshire Presidential Primary in 1992 in order to sign the warrant for Rickey Ray Rector’s execution. However, that support had begun to decline at the start of the twenty-first century as questions arose about fairness in regard to race or ethnicity and the possibility of executing an innocent person. In fact, the 2009 Arkansas General Assembly established a Legislative Task Force on Criminal Justice to study critical issues regarding major felonies including capital punishment.
On June 22, 2012, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down Arkansas’s death penalty law because of a provision that said the Department of Correction could choose the drugs used in executions. The court ruled that the legislature had to set the quantity and type of drugs used. Due to a shortage of one of the drugs used in lethal injection, sodium thiopental, and legal challenges surrounding the execution methods, Arkansas had not executed an inmate since 2005. The Arkansas General Assembly passed a new death penalty law in 2013; it faced immediate legal challenges but was ruled constitutional by the Arkansas Supreme Court on March 19, 2015. In August 2015, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced that the state had purchased drugs to carry out the death penalty, and on September 9, 2015, Governor Asa Hutchinson set the execution dates for eight inmates. However, Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen soon thereafter issued an order temporarily halting the executions in the wake of a lawsuit seeking information on the drugs the state had obtained.
For additional information:
Atkins, Jerry. Hangin’ Times in Fort Smith: A History of Executions in Judge Parker’s Court. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2012.
Bayless, Garland E. “The Arkansas Penitentiary under Democratic Control, 1874–1896.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 34 (Autumn 1975): 195–213.
Brown, Robbie. “Arkansas Court Upends Death Penalty.” New York Times, June 23, 2012. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/23/us/arkansas-justices-strike-down-death-penalty.html?_r=1 (accessed June 28, 2012).
Crosley, Clyde. Unfolding Misconceptions: A Study of the Arkansas Prison System, 1836–1986. Arlington, TX: Liberal Arts Press, 1986.
Grossman, Mark. Encyclopedia of Capital Punishment. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Inc., 1998.
Jackson, Bruce. Killing Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentiary. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Koon, David. “In Matters of Life and Death.” Arkansas Times, November 5, 2015, pp. 14–18, 20–22. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/in-matters-of-life-and-death/Content?oid=4154017 (accessed November 5, 2015).
Leflar, Robert A. “Arkansas Criminal Law Reform Movement in 1934–36.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 5 (Spring 1946): 1–25.
Palmer, Louis J., Jr. Encyclopedia of Capital Punishment in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2001.
Ringer, Andrea. “Arkansas and the Death Penalty: Responses to Governor Winthrop Rockefeller’s Commutation of Fifteen Death Sentences in 1970.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2012.
———. “‘Purely Personal and Philosophical’: Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller’s Death Sentence Commutations.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 74 (Summer 2015): 130–146.
Shipman, Marlin. “Arkansas Men and Media Celebrities: Arkansas Newspaper Coverage of Condemned Delta Defendants in the 1930s.” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 31 (August 2000): 110–124.
Urwin, Cathy Kunzinger. Agenda for Reform: Winthrop Rockefeller as Governor of Arkansas, 1967–1971. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.
David L. Rickard
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 11/5/2015
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