‘We look around for an Irishman’ - Death penalty chronically tilted against those at society’s bottom

There are two irrefutable facts about the death penalty. If a mistake is made, it cannot be rectified; the ultimate punishment is disproportionately administered to the poor and minorities. No matter one’s view of capital punishment, those two truths stand.

When Troy Davis, an African American, was executed by lethal injection in Georgia last month for the murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail, the case garnered nationwide attention, with many contending that recanted eyewitness testimony along with questionable forensics had raised the possibility of doubt. The issue of fairness – cutting across racial and class lines – bubbled up. While I make no pretense of legal expertise in the matter of Davis’s guilt or innocence, a look back at history in these parts reveals that there was day when being Irish shortened the odds of getting the death penalty even when prosecutors had presented ethnic and religious bombast with a paucity of evidence.

In the pages of the BIR, Bill O’Donnell and I have written about the 1806 trial of two Boston Irish immigrants, Dominic Daley and James Halligan, who were tried, convicted, and hanged in Northampton, Massachusetts, for a savage murder they did not commit. Twenty-four witnesses stood ready to link Daley and Halligan to the crime, a curious development, as there were no actual eyewitnesses; additionally, no physical evidence to link the Irishmen or anyone else to the battered body of Marcus Lyon would be presented. Lyon, a youthful farmer from Connecticut, was found bobbing in the Chicopee River. A pistol ball had torn into his ribcage, and his killer or killers had “smashed his head to a pulp.”

Once local authorities fished the corpse from the river, word of the murder spread throughout Western Massachusetts and across the New York and Connecticut borders, and search parties tracked the Boston Post Road, fields, and forests for “suspicious” men, especially strangers. The constables prowled the region for two burly men who looked like sailors and were headed toward New York, following a “sighting” provided by a local thirteen-year-old boy named Laertes Fuller, who claimed to have spotted the pair near the murder site.

Sometime in late 1805, a search party rode upon two men—34-year-old Dominic Daley and 27-year-old James Halligan—near Rye, New York. The duo’s brogues and rough appearance made them instantly suspicious to the constables. Daley and Halligan, however, “made no kind of resistance but professed innocence and willingness to be searched.” The constables answered by throwing the Irishmen in chains and hauling them to a dark cell in Northampton.

Shortly after Daley and Halligan were imprisoned, local authorities escorted young Fuller into the jail for a look at the manacled suspects. The boy proclaimed them to be the very men he had seen fleeing from the purported crime scene.

For locals, mostly Protestant, an almost palpable sense of relief greeted Fuller’s eyewitness identification. The fact that the alleged killers were Irish assuaged fears that one or more of the region’s native-born Protestant Americans had committed such a brutal act. As a Massachusetts jurist would later contend, locals preferred to believe that only “outsiders” could have killed so savagely, and in early nineteenth-century New England, Irish Catholic immigrants were the quintessential outsiders.

When defense attorney Francis Blake’s turn came to argue the case, he assailed all of the prosecution’s vague testimony. He closed with a diatribe against the real crux of the case: anti-Irish fervor. Blake railed at “the inveterate hostility against the people of that wretched country from which the prisoners have emigrated, for which the prisoners have emigrated, for which the people of New England are peculiarly distinguished.”

In his eloquent close, Blake intoned: “Pronounce then a verdict against them! Tell them that with all our boasted philanthropy, which embraces every circle on the habitable globe, we have yet no mercy for a wandering and expatriated fugitive from Ireland. That the name of an Irishman is, among us, but another name for a robber and an assassin; that every man’s hand is lifted against him; that when a crime of unexampled atrocity is perpetuated among us, we look around for an Irishman…and that the moment he is accused, he is presumed to be guilty.”

Blake’s words fell upon deaf ears. In April 1806 in Northampton, more than 1,500 men, women, and children ringed the scaffold upon which Dominic Daley and James Halligan were dispatched by their nooses in “a fearful dance of death.” The site of the hanging was on the future grounds of Northampton State Hospital.

Many years later, a Western Massachusetts man made a “deathbed confession” to the murder of Marcus Lyon. The killer was the uncle of Laertes Fuller, whose “identification” had doomed two innocent Irishmen to the gallows.

This past June, Bill O’Donnell also wrote about the sham trial and execution of John Gordon, a 29-year-old Irish immigrant who was hanged on Valentine’s Day 1845, the last person executed in Rhode Island.

Gordon had left Ireland in 1843 to join his brothers Nicholas and William in Cranston. Having arrived a few years earlier, Nicholas owned a general store and a tavern near a sprawling mill owned by Amasa Sprague, who hailed from one of the state’s most prominent Yankee families. Sprague was fighting to close down the Gordons’ bar, charging that too many mill workers were coming to work drunk. Through family and political connections, Sprague got his way in late 1843.

On Dec. 31, 1843, Amasa Sprague’s body was found in Knightsville, Rhode Island. A bullet had slammed into his arm, and his skull had been fractured in two places. The police seized John Gordon the next day because he had several times had words with Sprague. Nicholas and William Gordon were also to be arrested and face charges of murder, the crime presented as “retaliation” for Sprague’s success in closing the tavern.

There was no eyewitness testimony, and the chief “physical evidence” was a set of alleged bloodstains that turned out to be red dye. Police had discovered pieces of a gun near Sprague’s battered body. Several prosecution witnesses claimed to have spotted one of the Gordons carrying a gun days before the murder. While a prostitute asserted that she knew the Gordons and had heard one vowing to kill Sprague, she later could not even identify which brother was which. It also turned out that she worked for one of the presiding judges’ brother.

As with Dominic Daley and James Halligan, evidence mattered little to the judges or jury in John Gordon’s trial. Judge Job Durfee instructed the jurors – not one of whom was Catholic, and certainly not Irish – to “give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses.”

After a nine-day trial, with more than 100 witnesses, John Gordon was sentenced to hang after a mere 75 minutes of deliberation by jurors. Gordon was “sent off” by the noose at the state jail in Providence on Feb. 14, 1845. Thousands of Irish immigrants, many of whom had raised money for the Gordons’ legal fees, filed behind the horse-drawn hearse in the funeral procession to a Pawtucket cemetery.

In an interview in April of this year with the Associated Press, Father Bernard Healey of the Providence diocese, which had made an issue of the Gordon execution in seeking justice, made a statement and posed a question: “John Gordon was put to death because he was Catholic. “It was Catholics in the 19th century. Who will it be this century?”

Earlier this year, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee issued an official pardon to John Gordon. In 1984, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis had done the same for Dominic Daley and James Halligan.

While the pardons were fitting, there is no rectifying a death penalty after it has been administered. There is also no denying that the death penalty unfolds all too often along lines of ethnicity, race, class, and sometimes religion. Like most, I struggle with the issue when guilt is clear-cut. Still, when it appears that reasonable doubt exists and when that doubt emerges in a system tilted against certain strata of society, what is the harm in making sure that a potentially innocent man or woman is not put to death too soon?

Again, whether or not Troy Davis was the actual murderer of Mark MacPhail is something I certainly can’t answer, and the slain officer’s family has every right to believe that justice was served. I can’t help but wonder, however, if Troy Davis is today’s Daley, Halligan, or Gordon.