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President Trump and the death penalty debate in Maine

10 mins read
Joshua Chamberlain

By Paul Mills

It was the leading topic of President Trump’s visit to New Hampshire last week. A few days earlier the New Hampshire Senate took steps to repeal it. At the same time, a Florida prosecutor announced he intended to seek it in a high profile case.

It’s the “death penalty.” No two words seem to have captured as much attention in recent days as these. During the President’s appearance here in New England he renewed his call for imposing it on high impact drug dealers convicted in federal courts.

The New Hampshire State Senate weighed in when just a few days earlier it voted 14 to 10 to repeal it at the state level there.

This was at the same time as the Broward County Prosecutor in Florida announced his intention to seek it against Nicholas Cruz in the Parkland School shooting case.

Action by the New Hampshire Senate a few days ago in voting to repeal it in the only New England state where it is still on the books is likely to be only a symbolic exercise. That is because on the one hand Republican Governor Chris Sununu has vowed to veto it. Its use has been academic in any event because the last time the state put anyone to death was 1939.

Though Maine was in 1876 the fourth state in the nation to do away with the penalty (something that it would briefly reinstate in the 1880s) we were in 1790 host to the first execution under the new United States government. This occurred when a British seaman who had been stationed off Cape Elizabeth was convicted in the murder of the master of his merchant ship when it had been anchored off the coast of Africa. His hanging occurred near what is now Maine Medical Center.
By the time Maine became a state in 1820 it carried over from Massachusetts the death penalty for several serious crimes including murder and rape.

From that time until 1887 when the death penalty was taken off the books for good over 35 persons were sentenced to death. The actual death penalty itself was imposed on only nine of them, however.

The executions themselves were often major public spectacles. Take for example, the public hanging in Augusta the first week of January 1835 of Joseph Sager, who had been convicted of slowly poisoning his wife to death.

Despite a northeaster snow storm, over 4,000 people turned out from miles around to attend the event. They included many women who held infant babies in their arms. Dozens of drunks attending the event were rounded up, some being placed in a cell recently occupied by Sager himself.

Such a Roman Holiday phenomenon helped influence the Maine legislature in 1837 to take a step which had the effect of suspending as a practical matter imposition of the penalty for nearly 30 years.

That was a law that required a one year waiting period after sentencing along with the requirement that the governor sign a warrant to carry it into effect. This for a long time no governor did. There were thus over 20 murder convicts languishing in the state prison between 1837 and 1864 without the sentence having been imposed.

This changed in 1864. That’s when a state prison inmate who killed the warden left Governor Cony with little alternative but to carry out the penalty.

Later on in the same decade Maine had a governor who was freshly accustomed to making executive decisions with life and death consequences. This was Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain.

Chamberlain used the case of a sensational murder of an elderly widow and her deaf elderly companion in an apparent rape/robbery murder in Auburn to revive implementation of the penalty. The convicted perpetrator was a 19 year old Afro-American Civil War veteran named Clifton Harris.

The execution itself was, however, attended by embarrassing and unusually inhumane circumstances. The gallows had been so rarely used that hanging, the method that Maine always used, far from being swift and painless wound up through the incompetence of the executioner being a protracted strangulation.

The public outcry was such that Chamberlain withheld his signature on the death warrants for several others then on Maine’s death row.

Harris’s fate also attended the execution of the last convict upon whom the death penalty was imposed a few years later. This was in 1885 when Daniel Wilkinson whose slow death in front of thousands of spectators – because the knot around his neck was improperly tied – resulted in such a public outcry that it was a factor in the legislature’s final abolition of the penalty in 1887.

Back then as now the penalty seemed to be disproportionately imposed upon “outsiders.” Of the nine put to death under Maine law most fell into that category. Besides the Afro-American Harris those condemned included two Italian immigrants, a Prussian immigrant and Wilkinson, a British sailor who had recently jumped ship at Bath before killing one of its police officers.

Periodic attempts over the years have been made to restore the penalty, a process encouraged by the fact that so few other states had followed Maine’s lead in doing away with it. As recently as 1999 only 10 other states had done so and today that number stands at 19, over 31 states thus keeping it on the books even though it is rarely used except in Texas and Florida.

Among those who in modern times have sought to revive the practice was Westbrook Republican “Tuffy” Laflin. His proposal in the 1970’s was attended by a pronouncement on Laflin’s part that he would welcome the opportunity to “pull the switch” at the first opportunity if his law went into effect.

Hampden Legislator Debra Plowing won over 44 votes in the Maine House in her losing bid to restore it in 1999, while subsequent attempts such as those in 2005 by Sanford’s Senator Jonathan Courtney also failed.

These and other efforts have not seemed to have gained much traction in the state despite the fact that for the first time in nearly 50 years Republicans gained simultaneous control of both the Blaine House as well as the House and Senate in 2010. One would have expected the cause of the death penalty to have been infused with new life at that time. But capital punishment was not a Tea Party priority.

Ironically, a leading effort just three years ago came from a prominent Democrat. That is when Senator Bill Diamond, himself a former Maine Secretary of State, floated a proposal to bring back the death penalty to those convicted of killing children who had been victimized in pornographic films. That bid also did not get off the ground.

Despite the ardent advocacy of President Trump and the adherence of New Hampshire Governor Sununu there thus remains some continuing resonance to a 1901 study by State Librarian Leonard Garver that concluded “The sentiment of our people is now so strong against capital punishment that it may be safely assumed that the law will never be enacted in Maine.”

Paul H. Mills, is a Farmington attorney well known for his  analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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