Conn. weighs executions 166 years after last in RI

Connecticut’s new governor, Dannel Malloy, is the first Nutmeg State leader in more than 15 years to oppose the death penalty. Advocates are hoping he’ll sign legislation to abolish the practice before too long; his predecessor, Jodi Rell, vetoed a repeal bill less than two years ago.

Rhode Island officially banned the death penalty in 1984, but the state hasn’t actually executed anyone since 1845, a decade and a half before the Civil War began.

That was the year an Irish immigrant named John Gordon was hanged for allegedly murdering Amasa Sprague, brother of one Rhode Island governor and father of another. To this day, questions remain about Gordon’s guilt considering the climate in which he was convicted, as WRNI’s Scott MacKay reported in 2008:

The [Gordon] trial came at a time in the state of anti-immigrant hysteria against Irish Roman Catholics, the first group to immigrate here in large numbers and threaten the hegemony of the Yankee Protestants that ran Rhode Island as their duchy. …

Every time there was a serious attempt at the State House to bring the death penalty back to the state — the last was in the 1990s by then-Rep. Antonio Pires, D-Pawtucket — Gordon’s trial is invoked and measures to reinstitute capital punishment are defeated. …

John Gordon walked to the gallows from his cell at the state prison, which in those days was located in Providence, where the Providence Place mall now stands. Sixty community notables attended the hanging, along with another 1,000 or so people — [URI Professor Scott] Molloy says they were most likely Irish immigrants — who stood on the outskirts of the prison but were too far way to see the gallows, which were in the jail courtyard.

The Rev. John Brady, a Catholic priest, shocked the elite observers by saying to Gordon before the hanging: “Have courage, John. You are going to appear before a just and merciful judge. You are going to join myriads of your countrymen, who, like you, were sacrificed to the shrine of bigotry and prejudice.”

The General Assembly abolished the death penalty seven years later, making Rhode Island a pioneer in doing so along with Michigan and Wisconsin, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens noted recently.

Capital punishment was legalized again in 1872, and remained the law of the land until a 1979 Rhode Island Supreme Court decision declared it unconstitutional; lawmakers abolished the death penalty once more five years later.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee opposes capital punishment, but Peter Kilmartin, the state’s new attorney general, told The Providence Journal last year he is in favor of reinstating it for some offenses.

“I support the death penalty but only for particularly heinous crimes such as the intentional killing of a police officer, murder in the first degree with an aggravating factor such as torture or mutilation, and 1st degree sexual assault with an aggravating factor,” Kilmartin said. “In addition, the death penalty should not be automatic. It should only happen after a finding of guilt and an evidentiary hearing seeking the death penalty.”

You can be sure the ghost of John Gordon would loom large in any renewed debate over legalizing executions in Rhode Island. As an aside, former Cranston resident Ken Dooley has written a play about the Gordon trial that’s being put on through Feb. 27 at the city’s Park Theatre.

(photo: “Brotherly Love: Murder and the Politics of Prejudice in 19th-Century Rhode Island” cover)

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