PROVIDENCE — With the state embroiled in a modern-day struggle with the federal government over the death penalty, Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed a pardon Wednesday for the last man executed in Rhode Island, John Gordon, who was hanged in 1845 after a trial marked by witness mis-identifications and anti-Irish Catholic bigotry among the Yankee ruling class of the time.
Chafee signed the pardon at the historic Old State House on Benefit Street, in the room where Gordon's trial was conducted.
Rhode Island abolished the death penalty in 1852, in large part because of Gordon's hanging, which soon came to be seen as unjust.
“John Gordon was put to death after a highly questionable judicial process and based on no concrete evidence,” Chafee told a room packed with reporters, history buffs and Irish heritage groups. “There is no question he was not given a fair trial. Today we are trying to right that injustice.”
Newport Rep. Peter Martin, who led the effort to pardon Gordon in the House of Representatives, said Pawtucket's Friendly Sons of St. Patrick are chipping in to buy a headstone for what is now Gordon's unmarked grave in Pawtucket's St. Mary's Cemetery.
“I sponsored this bill because I came to understand that an innocent man was forced to suffer the terror, despair and humiliation of a public execution and that society and government will remain complicit if the record of judgment of that travesty of Rhode Island history is not corrected,” Martin said. “Today, we have righted a wrong and we have done the just thing.”
Martin said news outlets in Ireland have been closely following the effort to pardon Gordon.
Gordon was tried and convicted for the murder of wealthy industrialist Amasa Sprague, whose brother was a U.S. Senator, was beaten to death on New Year's Eve, 1843, which Chafee said was his wife's birthday.
Questioned by WRNI radio reporter Flo Jonic, Chafee said he was unaware that a long-ago relative of his, Deputy Sheriff Daniel Chafee, was a member of the investigating posse that tracked down Gordon. “That doesn't sound good,” Chafee said.
URI History Professor Scott Malloy, who has written books on the history of the Irish in Rhode Island, said of Gordon, “We can never prove definitively if he was innocent or guilty but we can prove that prejudice and discrimination helped convict him. That we can be sure of.”
The Rev. Donald Anderson, executive minister of the RI State Council of Churches, said, “today's signing makes all Rhode Islanders today stand a little bit taller.
“This event today does intersect with an event in our current headlines,” Anderson said. “I along with virtually every Rhode Islander grieve at the senseless murder of David Main.” He said the hope is that those responsible for his killing will be prosecuted and imprisoned. “But I must stand today in terms of our historic refusal to accept the death penalty. To agree with our governor that the death penalty is not the appropriate response to the crime of murder.”
Main, manager of a gas station in Woonsocket was shot and killed outside a Woonsocket bank where he went to make a deposit. The alleged shooter, Jason Pleau, has been indicted by a federal grand jury for the murder, but Chafee has refused to turn him over because he could face the death penalty if convicted in federal court.
Chafee told The Times Wednesday that he would agree to allow federal officials to take Pleau if they agree not to seek the death penalty.