Providence, RI – Governor Lincoln D. Chafee today pardoned John Gordon, an Irish immigrant who was hanged in 1845 for the murder of Amasa Sprague. Gordon’s infamous trial and subsequent execution have become part of Rhode Island lore, with many believing he was wrongfully convicted.
In a ceremony at the Old State House in Providence, where Gordon’s 1844 trial took place, the Governor signed a gubernatorial proclamation granting Gordon a full and complete pardon. Governor Chafee was joined by Representative Peter F. Martin, who sponsored the House resolution recommending that the Governor grant a pardon, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael J. McCaffrey, who sponsored the Senate version.
“John Gordon was put to death after a highly questionable judicial process and based on no concrete evidence,” Governor Chafee said. “There is no question he was not given a fair trial. Today we are trying to right that injustice.”
“John Gordon’s wrongful execution was a major factor in Rhode Island’s abolition of and longstanding opposition to the death penalty,” Governor Chafee continued. “Today, as we pardon John Gordon, we also recognize and uphold that commitment.”
“I sponsored this bill because I came to understand that an innocent man was forced to suffer the terror, despair and humiliation of a public execution and that society and government will remain complicit if the record of judgment of that travesty of Rhode Island history is not corrected,” Representative Martin said. “Today, we have righted a wrong and we have done the just thing.”
“Governor Chafee’s pardon of John Gordon acknowledges the failures of our state’s past and corrects the historical record,” Chairman McCaffrey said. “In so doing our state is reaffirming the sanctity of the constitutional right to a fair trial for everyone, regardless of religion, ethnicity, heritage, race, or any other characteristic.”
In 1852, just seven years after Gordon’s hanging, and in large part because of it, Rhode Island became the second state in the nation to abolish capital punishment. The General Assembly would later reinstate mandatory death penalty for persons incarcerated for life who commit murder while incarcerated and in 1973 extended it to all incarcerated persons who commit murder while incarcerated. No one was put to death under those policies, though, and in 1979 capital punishment was declared unconstitutional by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. John Gordon remains the last person executed by the State of Rhode Island.