Capital punishment in Rhode Island
Rhode Island is one of the earliest states of the United States to abolish capital punishment, having completely abolished it for all crimes in 1852. The death penalty was later reintroduced in 1872, but it never was carried out before being abolished again in 1984. It is the state with no executions in the longest period, with no executions having taken place in the state since 1845.
Rhode Island performed 52 executions from 1673 to February 13, 1845. Only seven of them took place after statehood. Half of all the executions occurred on July 19, 1723 when 26 sailors were hanged for piracy. Rhode Island has never executed a female.
Hanging was a legal method and the most commonly used form of execution; however five executions were carried out by an unknown method. Gas chamber was a legal method during the revival of the penalty but never used; the only state which adapted the gas chamber but never put it into use.
 History of abolitions
In January 1838, a report entitled, “Report of the Committee On the Abolishment of Capital Punishments” was made by the General Assembly Committee to Revise the Penal Code. The recommendation was to abolish capital punishment. On December 31, 1843, Amasa Sprague, who was the brother of former Rhode Island Governor William Sprague, was murdered. In January 1844, the General Assembly had abolished capital punishment for all crimes except murder and arson. Amasa Sprague was one of the wealthiest and most powerful industrialists in the state. John, Nicholas, and William Gordon were indicted for the murder in March 1844. Nicholas Gordon had been involved in a dispute with Amasa Sprague over the renewal of Gordon’s liquor license.
The Gordons, who were Irish Catholics, received the support of the state labor movement, which consisted primarily of Irish and Italian immigrants. At the trial in 1844, Nicholas and William Gordon were found to have ironclad alibis, but considerable circumstantial evidence was presented against John Gordon. John Gordon was convicted of the murder in 1844 and was sentenced to death by hanging, to be carried out on February 14, 1845. The labor movement had seen the trial of the Gordons as part of the struggle with the commercially and politically powerful industrialists represented by the Sprague family. The most damning circumstantial evidence at trial were witnesses who identified a gun found near the victim as belonging to the Gordons. The Gordons could not produce their gun during trial. However, after the trial, the gun was found intact within the Gordon home. John Gordon’s conviction was appealed to the House of Representatives, which denied it by a vote of 36 to 27. It was then appealed to Governor James Fenner, who reviewed the conviction but refused to intercede.
John Gordon was executed for the murder of Amasa Sprague on February 14, 1845. This was the last execution in Rhode Island. On January 23, 1852, after seven years of discussion and debate regarding the merits of Gordon’s conviction and of capital punishment, the Senate Committee on Education issued a report on the history and merits of capital punishment. This report contains literary quotations on the death penalty and contemporary U.S. and European practices regarding capital punishment. On February 11, 1852, the Rhode Island General Assembly abolished capital punishment entirely.
On June 26, 1973 Rhode Island General Assembly provided for the penalty of death by lethal gas for murders committed by persons while under confinement in the state correctional institutions. But the Rhode Island Supreme Court issued the opinion that the mandatory death sentence provisions of 1973 Chapter 280 (RI General Laws 11-23-2) violated the cruel and unusual punishment prohibitions of the 8th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Finally, on May 9, 1984, the General Assembly enacted Public Law Chapter 221, which removed the mandatory death sentence language from RI General Law section 11-23-2. There have been many pieces of legislation introduced since 1984 to reinstate the death penalty for specific crimes, but nothing has been passed into law.
|Date capital punishment was legally abolished||1852-02-11|
|Date capital punishment was reinstated||1872|
|Date capital punishment was legally abolished (2d time)||1984-05-09|
|Legal methods of execution||1673–1852; 1872–1984||hanging (47)|
|1973–1984||gas chamber (0)|
|First legal execution||1673||unknown||Punnean||unknown|
|Most recent legal execution||1845-02-14||hanging||John Gordon||murder|