"Justice has no statute of limitations..."
Abolishing of the Death Penalty in Rhode Island

Compiled October 11, 2000 by the office of the Rhode Island Secretary of State:

In January 1838, a report entitled. "Report of the Committee On the Abolishment of Capital Punishments" was made to 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 the first RI Governor named William Sprague, and the father of the second Governor (later U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator) 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.

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 RI General Assembly abolished capital punishment entirely. In 1872, the General Assembly enacted the penalty of death by hanging for murder committed while under sentence of life imprisonment.

In a special session held on June 26, 1973, the General Assembly enacted Public Law Chapter 280, which provided for the penalty of death by lethal gas for murders committed by persons while under confinement in the state correctional institutions. In 1979, 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 (State v. Anthony, 398 A.2d 1157 and State v. Cline, 397 A.2d 1309).

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.