Hanged Irishman gets pardon – after 166 years

01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, May 5, 2011

AN IRISHMAN, who was the last person to be executed in the smallest State in the US, has finally received a pardon — 166 years after he was hanged.

John Gordon was executed in 1845, shortly after emigrating to Rhode Island, for the brutal killing of wealthy, politically-connected mill owner Amasa Sprague, who was found with a fractured skull and gun shot wounds.

Historians have long since argued that the evidence against Gordon, who fled a poverty-stricken life in Ireland in 1843, was circumstantial and that his trial was tainted by widespread bigotry against Irish Catholics.

Arguments that Gordon had been wrongly convicted because he was Irish began immediately after his execution on Valentine's Day in 1845 and led to the abolition of the death penalty just seven years later — making Rhode Island one of the earliest States in the US to abolish capital punishment.

But the long-running campaign to clear his name carried on for another 150 years until a breakthrough this month when the state legislative committee endorsed a bill seeking his posthumous pardon.

The House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to advance a resolution urging Governor Lincoln Chafee to pardon Gordon, who was 29 at the time of his death.

The bill’s sponsor, local Democratic Representative Peter Martin, one of the instigators of a twinning arrangement between his native Newport and Kinsale, Co. Cork, said: “My father always told me the last man hanged in Rhode Island was innocent.

“I don’t know where people go where they die. But there’s something about having your name cleared. I think we owe it to him.”

Public defender Michael DiLauro, who has studied the case for years, said the story of Gordon’s death was passed down through generations and came to represent the intolerance faced by Irish immigrants at the time, as depicted in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 epic Gangs Of New York.

He said the judge at the time, Justice Job Durfee, banned Irish immigrants from the jury and even told jurors to “give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses”.

Mr DiLauro said: “This is what public defenders do. We do lost causes. This guy got screwed. There’s no question.”

Kinsale Mayor Michael Frawley said he was delighted his opposite number in Newport, Rep. Peter Martin, was finally about to see justice done.

“The campaign’s been going on for so long now, but finally there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel with John Gordon getting the pardon that he deserves.”

Gordon's execution has even been the subject of a play, The Murder Trial Of John Gordon, in which Rhode Island playwright Ken Dooley re-enacts what he considers the Irishman’s wrongful execution.