Ruth Della Sumlin’s latest request for a commutation of her life sentence for capital murder in Columbia County was declared “without merit” this month by the Arkansas Parole Board.

The news about Sumlin came in the Arkansas Parole Board’s monthly recommendations for pardons and sentence commutations.

Sumlin has been in jail or prison for almost 44 years. On Thanksgiving night 1977, she surprised a guard at the old Columbia County Jail and held a gun and knife on him, and demanded that the guard release the man she had married in jail a month earlier, Warren Sumlin. Warren Sumlin and four other prisoners escaped. Two of the escapees were soon recaptured, but Sumlin and two other inmates, along with Ruth Della Sumlin, fled in a vehicle that belonged to a man named J.Y. Cooper.

The Sumlins and one of the other inmates were captured by Dallas County authorities the next day. The fifth escapee was caught a few months later in another state. Testimony indicated that the Sumlins shot at and intended to kill the two other inmates sharing their ride so that they could steal their money and possessions.

Also the next day, Cooper’s near-naked body was found on a logging road near Magnolia. He had been shot once and his sexual organs were mutilated. The state alleged that Ruth Della Sumlin had killed Cooper and stolen his car to facilitate the escape. She testified that Cooper was in the car when she took it to the jail, and that her husband killed Cooper later. The other inmates in the car testified that Cooper was not present when they escaped.

Warren Sumlin was also convicted of capital murder. He died in prison.

Ruth Della Sumlin, now age 67, remains in the McPherson Unit at Newport.

Sumlin is both the oldest and longest-serving Columbia County female in state custody.

The current oldest and longest-serving Columbia County man in state custody is Harold Sherman Upton, 78, who is held at the Ouachita River Correctional Unit in Malvern. He was convicted of first degree murder on March 6, 1974.

Upton was found guilty of the December 27, 1971 shooting death of Woodrow Defee. Upton and his wife picked up Defee on a highway in Union County. A short time later, Upton stopped the car, tried to rob Defee and then shot him twice – leaving the body near the road.

South Arkansas people receiving “With Merit” recommendations for pardons, listed by county:


Gregory Marshall, violation of omnibus DWI Act 4th offense.

South Arkansas people receiving “With Merit” recommendations for pardons, listed by county:


Felicia Aiken, possession of meth, revocation of probation, shoplifting.


Jasmine Highsmith, conspiracy to deliver cocaine, possession of cocaine, revocation of probation.


Timothy Buzbee, sexual assault second degree, sexual solicitation of a child.

South Arkansas people receiving “With Merit” recommendations for commutations, listed by county:


Willy Ray Cheatham, burglary, rape.

South Arkansas people receiving “Without Merit” recommendations for commutations, listed by county:


Charles Goodwin, capital murder.


Charles Colbert, murder first degree.


Willy Ray Cheatham, burglary, rape.


Jimmy Bridges, criminal attempt rape, rape.


Mary Monte, murder first degree.

Lee Owens, manufacture, delivery and possession of a controlled substance. Habitual offender.

In Arkansas, the Parole Board has the authority to assist the governor in exercising his authority to grant pardons and commutations.

A commutation is a reduction in a sentence imposed by a court. It may mean either a lesser term of imprisonment, or reduces a sentence to time served.

A pardon is an act of forgiveness issued by the governor for a crime that has been committed. It may be issued to people either in or out of prison.

Commutation or pardon requests deemed by the Parole Board as “With Merit” are formal recommendations to the governor in favor of the request. “Without Merit” recommendations indicate that the board does not approve of the inmate or parolee’s request. The governor has the authority to accept or reject either Parole Board recommendation.

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