Iowa’s modern governors — Republicans and Democrats — have been stingy with commutation, a form of clemency in which a governor converts a mandatory life sentence into a fixed-length term with a possibility of parole.
From 1945 to 1983, Iowa governors commuted the sentences of an average 5.5 inmates a year, according to data provided by the Iowa Department of Corrections. Since 1983, lifers have seen less than 0.4 commutations a year, or only a couple of commutations a decade.
Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, commuted the life prison terms of just three inmates in his nearly 23 years in office.
Former Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, commuted two life sentences, but was in office only four years. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, commuted an average of one life sentence a year for his eight years in office.
Former Gov. Herschel C. Loveless, who served from 1957 to 1961, commuted the life prison terms of 46 inmates.
But former Gov. Leo Elthon holds the record — at least since 1945 — for commuting the most sentences in the shortest amount of time. He commuted the terms of 17 lifers from November 1954 to January 1955.
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A Jan. 10, 1955, article in The Gazette reported that Elthon’s commutations were following the wishes of Gov. William Beardsley, who died in a car crash. Elthon commuted life sentences for nine inmates convicted of murder, five of bank robbery, one of attempted murder and two for crimes that would now be considered sexual abuse, The Gazette reported. Three people under age 18 were among those whose terms Elthon commuted.
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