Capital punishment in Rhode Island
Rhode Island was one of the earliest states in the United States to abolish capital punishment, having abolished it for all crimes in 1852. The death penalty was reintroduced in 1872, but it was never carried out before being abolished again in 1984. Of all the states, Rhode Island has had the longest period with no executions, none having taken place since 1845.
Rhode Island performed 52 executions from 1673 to February 13, 1845, but only seven took place after statehood. Half of the executions occurred on July 19, 1723, when 26 sailors were hanged for piracy. Rhode Island has never executed a female offender.
Hanging was the most commonly used form of execution; five executions were carried out by an unknown method. Gas inhalation was authorized after 1973, but it was never used. Rhode Island is the only state to have adopted that method and not used it.
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, the brother of former Rhode Island Governor William Sprague and one of the wealthiest and most powerful industrialists in the state, was murdered. In January 1844, the General Assembly abolished capital punishment for all crimes except murder and arson. In March 1844, John, Nicholas, and William Gordon were indicted for the murder. Nicholas had been involved in a dispute with Sprague over the renewal of the Gordons' liquor license.
The Gordons, who were Irish Catholics, received the support of the state labor movement, which consisted primarily of Irish and Italian immigrants. The labor movement saw the trial as part of their struggle against the commercially and politically powerful industrialists represented by the Sprague family. At the trial in 1844, Nicholas and William Gordon were found to have ironclad alibis, but considerable circumstantial evidence was presented against John. The most damaging testimony was given by witnesses who identified a gun found near the victim as belonging to the Gordons. They could not produce their gun during the trial, but it was found afterward in their home. Nicholas and William were acquitted, but John was convicted and sentenced to death. His 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 hanged on February 14, 1845. It was the last execution in Rhode Island. On January 23, 1852, after seven years of discussion and debate concerning Gordon’s conviction and the merits of capital punishment, the Senate Committee on Education issued a report. The report contained literary references to the death penalty, and outlined U.S. and European practices regarding it. On February 11, 1852, the Rhode Island General Assembly abolished capital punishment.
The death penalty was reinstated in 1872 for murders committed while under sentence of life imprisonment, but no one was ever executed under this provision.
On June 26, 1973, the Rhode Island General Assembly instituted the penalty of death by gas inhalation for murders committed during confinement in state correctional institutions. But the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that the mandatory death sentence provisions of Chapter 280 (RI General Laws 11-23-2) violated the "cruel and unusual punishment" clause 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. Many pieces of legislation have been introduced since then to reinstate the death penalty for specific crimes, but none have passed.
|First execution||5/23.1673||hanging||Thomas Cornell Jr.||murder of his mother, convicted on the grounds of spectral evidence|
|Last execution||2/14/1845||hanging||John Gordon||murder (posthumously pardoned in 2011)|
|Capital punishment abolished||2/11/1852|
|Capital punishment reinstated||1872|
|Capital punishment abolished||5/09/1984|
|Authorized methods of execution||1673–1852; 1872–1984||hanging (47)|
|1973–1984||gas inhalation (0)|
- List of executions
- Report of the Committee on Education in the Senate on the Subject of Capital Punishment from the Rhode Island State Archives
- Report of the Committee on the Abolishment of Capital Punishment from the Rhode Island State Archives