In St. Mary Cemetery in Pawtucket lies the grave of John Gordon. Gordon was an Irish immigrant who was convicted of killing the prominent businessman Amasa Sprague in 1843.
On Valentine’s Day 1845, John Gordon was hanged in the courtyard of the old Rhode Island Statehouse. It was later determined that Gordon was most likely innocent and his conviction the result of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment which dominated Rhode Island in the 1840’s. The legacy of capital punishment in Rhode Island remains to this day that the last man put to death by the state was innocent and his death sentence the result of bigotry and prejudice. In fact, that legacy led Governor Lincoln Chafee to sign an official pardon of Mr. Gordon last year.
Over a hundred years later the Rhode Island State Senate is set to consider legislation sponsored by Senators John Tassoni (D-Smithfield), James Doyle (D-Pawtucket) and Frank DeVall, Jr. (D-East Providence) that would allow the R.I. Attorney General to seek the death penalty against criminals convicted of first degree murder. These senators and other elected officials will no doubt find support for their legislation from the general public who generally favor the death penalty.
However, our modern society can now protect itself from violent killers by the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Therefore state sanctioned killing by execution can no longer be morally justifiable defense to murder. Further, the fundamental Catholic teaching that all human life deserves dignity and respect includes even the lives of violent killers. Violence cannot be eradicated from our culture by more violence. The death penalty is a furious and vengeful answer to an increasingly more violent society. It has been shown to be inequitable and biased against the poor who cannot afford decent legal protection and against minorities who are sentenced to death in increasingly disproportionate numbers. Therefore, we hope that the Rhode Island Senate will carefully consider not only the inequitable imposition of the death penalty but also the immorality of state sanctioned killing and reject any efforts to legalize capital punishment in the Ocean State.