Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Wednesday pardoned the last man executed in Rhode Island, an Irish immigrant who was hanged more than 150 years ago following what is believed to be a trial tainted by widespread bigotry against Irish Catholics.
John Gordon was convicted of killing Amasa Sprague, a wealthy mill owner and the brother of a U.S. senator. Gordon was hanged in 1845 at the age of 29. But law professors and historians now say the evidence against him was circumstantial and prejudice against Irish Catholics compromised his trial.
Chafee signed the proclamation pardoning Gordon at the Old State House in Providence, where Gordon's trial took place. The governor called Gordon's trial and execution a "dark spot" in Rhode Island history and said the pardon was long overdue.
The proclamation signed by the governor in the very room in which Gordon was believed to have been convicted says the Irishman was executed for a murder he did not commit.
Rhode Island's General Assembly passed legislation urging Chafee to grant the pardon. The state lawmakers who sponsored the resolution in the Senate and House of Representatives, including Rep. Peter Martin, D-Newport, and Sen. Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, attended the public ceremony.
"Justice has no statute of limitations," Martin said.
The death penalty was abolished in Rhode Island in 1852 before being reintroduced two decades later. It was abolished again in 1984.
Six months before Sprague's killing on New Year's Eve 1843, he had used the political influence of his family to get the liquor license at a general store and pub run by one of Gordon's brothers, Nicholas, revoked.
Sprague and his brother William owned a successful print works in Cranston, and their workers were known to throw back drinks at the pub while on lunch break.
Sprague was not generally well-liked. But blame immediately centered on the Gordon family, according to Scott Molloy, a University of Rhode Island professor of labor who has studied a collection of papers belonging to the judge who presided over the trial. Some of the documents only came to light in 2008.
John Gordon and another brother, William, went to trial first on charges they conspired to murder the mill owner. William was found innocent and John guilty, but Molloy says the proceedings were marked by anti-Irish Catholic bias and other "egregious" irregularities. The main witness for the prosecution, for instance, was a woman believed to be a prostitute who in court misidentified John Gordon as William Gordon and William as John.
A play about the murder trial, written and directed by Cranston resident Ken Dooley, outlined a rash of other problems, including Catholics being effectively banned from the jury and a bloodstained coat introduced as evidence that was later found to have been stained by dye.
John Gordon's brother, Nicholas, also later stood trial but was never convicted.
Gordon was executed on Feb. 14, 1845, by hanging on the grounds of the old state jail, the site today of the Providence Place mall.
The Pawtucket chapter of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, a group that pushed for the pardon, said he offered these final words: "I forgive them. I forgive all my persecutors, because they did not know what they were doing. I hope all good Christians pray for me."
Martin said the group is planning to throw a "big party" and erect a gravestone at the unmarked site at St. Mary's cemetery in Pawtucket where Gordon is buried.
Molloy said no one knows for certain who perpetrated the crime. It could have been one of the Gordons or one of several other "suspicious characters" who were not fond of Amasa Sprague. What is certain, though, is that the trial's integrity was compromised, he said.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," said Molloy, who has been teaching the John Gordon case for 25 years. "It's a great feeling. You really have the sense that you've scaled the slopes of achievement."