An Irishman has been cleared of murder in Rhode Island – 167 years after he was wrongly hanged.
John Gordon was the last man ever executed in the Rhode Island jurisdiction for a murder he didn’t commit.
He was finally pardoned by the Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee in a ceremony on Wednesday.
Immigrant Gordon was charged, along with his brothers Nicholas and William, of the murder of Amasa Sprague, a member of a prominent Rhode Island family that included Sprague’s brother, the former governor and later U.S. senator William Sprague.
Controversy surrounded the trial at a time of strong anti-immigrant sentiment amongst the RhodeIsland’s mostly Yankee Protestant community, resentful of the newly arrived Irish, who had been flocking there to work in the thriving textile mills.
Amasa Sprague’s body was found brutally beaten on New Year’s Day, 1844, on a snowy Cranston road connecting his factory and his mansion.
A conspiracy theory, reportedly based more on bigotry and class warfare than hard evidence, was formed in which Nicholas was said to have held a grudge against Sprague with John and William his accomplices in an alleged revenge killing.
Only John was found guilty of the murder despite contradictory evidence at the trial according to notes from judge Job Durfee which later came to light.
It is believed Durfee may have influenced the jurors to convict Gordon anyway, instructing them “to give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses.”
Gordon, the last person ever executed on Rhode Island, was finally pardoned on Wednesday. The state banned the death penalty in 1984, years after Gordon was put to death in the gallows, located in Providence.
Independent Governor Lincoln Chafee issued a proclamation pardoning Gordon on Wednesday.
He was joined at the ceremony at the old State House by Democratic state Representative Peter Martin, sponsor of a House resolution urging the pardon, and Senate sponsor, Democrat Michael McCaffrey.
“John Gordon was put to death after a highly questionable judicial process and based on no concrete evidence,” Chafee said.
“There is no question he was not given a fair trial. Today we are trying to right that injustice. This wrongful execution was a major factor in Rhode Island’s abolition of and longstanding opposition to the death penalty.”