RI panel backs pardon of Irish man hanged in 1845

AP News
Posted: May 04, 2011 7:45 PM

John Gordon, the last man executed in Rhode Island, can perhaps rest easier now that a state legislative committee has endorsed a bill seeking his pardon for a murder that many say the Irish immigrant did not commit.

The House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to advance a resolution urging Gov. Lincoln Chafee to pardon Gordon. Gordon, who was convicted of the 1843 killing of a wealthy and politically connected Rhode Island mill owner, was hanged in 1845 at age 29.

Historians now say the evidence against him was circumstantial and that his trial was tainted by widespread bigotry against Irish Catholics. The story of Gordon's death was passed down through the generations and has come to represent the intolerance faced by Irish immigrants.

"My father always told me the last man hanged in Rhode Island was innocent," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Peter Martin, D-Newport, told The Associated Press. "I don't know where people go when they die. But there's something about having your name cleared. I think we owe it to him."

Gordon left Ireland to join his brothers in Rhode Island in 1843. They ran a general store and tavern near a mill owned by Amasa Sprague. Sprague, the brother of a U.S. senator, wanted the tavern closed because too many workers were showing up drunk. Authorities soon shuttered the tavern.

Sprague's body was found Dec. 31, 1843. He'd been shot in the arm and beaten hard enough to fracture his skull. John Gordon was arrested the next day. Prosecutors said he and his brothers conspired to kill Sprague. He was convicted and hanged in downtown Providence.

Public defender Michael DiLauro has studied the case for years and said there were several errors made at the trial: A witness who couldn't positively identify Gordon. A judge who told jurors to give more weight to "Yankee" witnesses than Irish ones.

"This is what public defenders do," DiLauro said. "We do lost causes. This guy got screwed. There's no question."

The full House is expected to consider the legislation next week. Passage in the House would move the legislation to the Senate. Chafee has said he supports the pardon.

The Catholic Church and the American Civil Liberties Union both support pardoning Gordon. So do lawmakers in both parties. They shake their heads when asked if pardoning a long dead man is a waste of time.

"This story demonstrates what intolerance can lead to," said Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster. "It's important that we remember it. That we try to set it right."