116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
An old man died at the Iowa State Penitentiary this month.
Warren “Jack” Nutter, 84, died the same way he lived most of his life — incarcerated. He spent 65 years in prison for murdering a police officer in Independence in 1956. He was the longest-serving inmate in Iowa history and one of the longest anywhere in the country.
Were Iowans made safer by tossing a troubled teenager in a cage and throwing away the key for more than six decades? I doubt it.
“Lifers used to have a chance of getting out of here. Now they can’t, now they don’t.” — Warren Nutter
Nutter committed the crime at age 18. Dwight Eisenhower was president and Elvis Presley had not yet made his first national television appearance.
Nutter, who had run-ins with the law as early as age 14, set out with friends toward California from their homes in Illinois in January 1956. They stole a car, robbed a store and were eventually detained in Buchanan County, where Nutter shot and killed a police officer during an escape attempt. He was sentenced to death by hanging but the governor commuted the sentence to life in 1957.
Over a lifetime spent at the Iowa State Penitentiary, Nutter witnessed significant changes to incarceration in Iowa. His was one of the cases that precipitated the abolition of the death penalty in Iowa in 1965. He was there for the deadly 1981 inmate riot that led to a militarized security crackdown under a new warden.
Nutter was among the inmates moved from the historic Fort Madison prison, opened in 1839, to a new facility nearby in 2015. For those of us on the outside, it’s hard to see how anyone on the inside could have any affection for that old prison, with its 30-foot walls blocking any view of the outside world. But Nutter saw it as the place he grew up.
“Every time I see him he volunteers to go back and be the housekeeper down there. He swears nothing bad will happen if we just let him go back to his home,'' Mark Roberts, former deputy warden, said in the 2018 documentary “The Fort,” in which Nutter is one of the main subjects.
Nutter also witnessed a sharp increase in the number of “lifers” serving in Iowa.
“Lifers used to have a chance of getting out of here. Now they can’t, now they don’t. … Now you’ve got people doing 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. I think there ought to be some kind of something done about that,” he said in the documentary
Commutations from the governor have declined significantly over the past half century, Iowa Public Radio’s Kate Payne reported this month. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has granted no commutations during her tenure, recently rejected another round of requests from five prisoners serving life sentences.
Even the sick and elderly — “too old to get in trouble,” as Nutter put it — have little chance of going home to just to die in peace. Iowa is the only state in the nation without a compassionate release program, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
Nutter is not the most sympathetic case for sentencing reform. In the eyes of the state, he was the worst of the worst, a cop killer.
But in his old age, he clearly was no threat to society. He was just an old man in a new prison, defeated by a lifetime behind bars.
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