Possible pardon for immigrant hanged in Rhode Island

08 May 2011 By John Burke

An Irish immigrant who was the last person to be executed in the US state of Rhode Island more than 160 years ago may be pardoned following the backing of state legislators there.

A Rhode Island legislative committee last week passed a motion seeking the approval of the state’s governor to pardon John Gordon, who was hanged on Valentine’s Day 1845 for the murder of Amasa Sprague, a wealthy and politically well-connected Rhode Island businessman.

Sprague had been beaten and then shot. His body was discovered on the banks of the Pocasset River, on New Year’s Eve 1843.

The mill owner had clashed several times with John Gordon’s brother, Nicholas, an Irish immigrant who had opened a liquor store and who was making a fortune selling alcohol to Sprague’s mill workers.

Sprague’s brother, a US Senator, managed to persuade city officials to suspend Nicholas Gordon’s liquor licence. Nicholas was tried for the killing alongside his two brothers, John and William.

However, only 29-year-old John was convicted of murder, based on what historians now agree was circumstantial evidence.

He appealed his conviction, but the judges who heard his appeal were the ones who had found him guilty at his first trial.

Historians told the committee that the conviction occurred when t here was widespread suspicion of Irish Catholic immigrants who were flooding into the US during the 1840s.

One of the trial judges urged the jury to ‘‘give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses’’, according to historical documents.

The state decided to do away with the death penalty following public unease over Gordon’s conviction and his killing.

The bill, which was agreed last week by the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee, was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Catholic diocese of Providence.

A full assembly of the Rhode Island legislature will consider the bill on Wednesday.

Under the Rhode Island state constitution, the governor may grant a pardon only on the advice and with the consent of the US Senate.