By Brian Irby, archival assistant
Over the years there have been many attempts to combat the problem of crime in Arkansas. One Arkansas governor, Tom Terral, was convinced that the way to make sure that those convicted were appropriately punished for their crimes was to outlaw parole and executive clemency. This policy was controversial and likely cost him his political career.
Thomas Jefferson Terral was born in Louisiana in 1882. He graduated with his law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1910 and began practicing law in Little Rock. V. It didn’t take long before he set his eyes on starting a political career. He became Secretary of State in 1916 and was re-elected in 1918. His political ambitions led him to run for governor in 1920. Terral campaigned on a platform of anti-parole and executive clemency sentiments.
The issue of pardons had been on the political radar since Gov. George Donaghey went on a pardoning spree in the final months of his second term as governor, pardoning 37% of the state’s prison population in 1913. The motive behind this excessive amount of pardoning was in connection with the convict-lease program, a controversial program where inmates were leased out to private companies as free labor. Donaghey opposed the system and hoped that this would deprive the program of the labor it needed to function. He was correct, and the convict lease system ended a year later.
Terral adopted a stance against executive clemency in his first campaign for governor in 1920. Noting that the pardon power could be abused in exchange for bribes or from pressure from powerful people, he vowed to oppose any pardons or parole of any kind. “The granting of pardons has depended too much upon the political influence of the person representing the convict,” he declared. Despite making an impression on Arkansas voters, he lost the Democratic primary. Terral returned to private life, but his campaign influenced newly elected Gov. Thomas McRae, who took up the anti-pardon mantle and made it a part of his administration’s goals. This was most apparent when, in November 1921, McRae broke with long standing tradition and released no Thanksgiving Day pardon list. For many years governors had released some convicts from prison on Thanksgiving Day, but this changed under McRae’s leadership. Over the next four years of McRae’s time in office, he issued very few pardons.
In 1924, McRae decided not to seek a third term as governor, leaving Terral an opening. Terral once again adopted a pledge not to pardon any prisoners. The issue seemed to be a winning one and, combined with Terral’s pledges to provide free textbooks for Arkansas schools and improve Arkansas’s roads, swept Terral into office. Terral remained true to his pledge. During his first year, despite petitions for pardons from judges and the public, Terral refused to issue a single pardon.
In October 1925, Terral’s perfect "no-parole" record was tarnished when he left the state to attend a governors’ meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. While Terral was out of the state, Senate President Pete McCall, serving as acting governor, quickly issued nine pardons. Angered at McCall’s pardons, Terral never left the state again during his time in office.
Meanwhile, there were nine (now pardoned) prisoners that Terral believed should still be in prison, and he ordered the state police to search out and rearrest them. One of the prisoners, W.W. Gillespie, who had been serving a three-year sentence for illegally padding the payrolls of friends at the Missouri Pacific Railroad, was quickly rearrested and brought back to prison. Gillespie filed for a writ of habeas corpus asking the state to explain what crime he was being held for, since, after all, he had been declared a free man by the acting governor of Arkansas. Prison superintendent Dee Horton responded that the pardon issued by McCall was illegitimate and the case went to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
In Horton v Gillespie, attorneys representing the state argued that McCall, while acting as governor, had violated an obscure state law, Act 154, which regulated applications for pardons. The act required the person or persons seeking to petition the governor for clemency on behalf of a prisoner advertise such an intent in some public manner. They argued that McCall did not publish such an intent, making the pardons void. The court agreed with the state and ordered all the prisoners rearrested. In the wake of the court’s decision, Terral remained adamant. “No good time will be allowed those who refuse to return to the penitentiary or who put the state to any further trouble and expense in apprehending them,” he announced. “We mean to retake every one of those pardoned and return them to the penitentiary as soon as possible. We will get them, even if they go to foreign countries.”
However, the pardoned prisoners had their advocates. Circuit Judge L.S. Britt ordered a temporary restraining order preventing law enforcement from arresting the men. At the time of the ruling, only one prisoner had returned to prison. The other eight were still on the loose. The injunction created a strange circumstance whereby if law enforcement in other states arrested a prisoner and tried to extradite him to Arkansas, he would be forced by the order to release him at the state border. Eventually, the restraining order expired, and the remaining prisoners were again arrested and put back into prison.
The whole affair had given Terral a black eye. His advocacy of the “no-pardon” policy and some other financial controversies regarding possible monetary kickbacks to him by textbook publishers eroded the public trust in the governor’s office. The controversy had not died down by the time Terral campaigned for re-election in 1926. His opponent, John Martineau, made the pardon controversy an issue in the campaign. Likewise, many Arkansans had changed their opinions on the matter of pardons and now saw the governor’s stance against pardons as unfair. The Smackover Journal led the charge against Terral, arguing that the governor “has turned a deaf ear to the pleding [sic] of the just and unjust.”
Martineau defeated Terral in the Democratic primary of 1926. Terral personally believed that his stance on pardons had likely cost him his re-election. In the remaining months in office after his defeat, Terral reversed course and began issuing pardons arguing that the primary proved that the people wanted a more liberal policy. In his farewell address, Terral pointed to the failure of his no-pardon policy, “I frankly concede that the views which I first held were extreme and that the parole law is a wise and beneficent provision for extending just clemency to those who are honestly entitled to relief.”