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The Solemn Sentence of Death

The Solemn Sentence of Death: Capital Punishment in Connecticut

Lawrence B. Goodheart
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Solemn Sentence of Death
    Book Description:

    The first case study of its kind, this book addresses a broad range of questions about the rationale for and application of judicial execution in Connecticut since the seventeenth century. In addition to identifying the 158 people who have been put to death for crimes during the state's history, Lawrence Goodheart analyzes their social status in terms of sex, race, class, religion, and ethnicity. He looks at the circumstances of the crimes, the weapons that were used, and the victims. He reconstructs the history of Connecticut's capital laws, its changing rituals of execution, and the growing debate over the legitimacy of the death penalty itself. Although the focus is on the criminal justice system, the ethical values of New England culture form the larger context. Goodheart shows how a steady diminution in types of capital crimes, including witchcraft and sexual crimes, culminated in an emphasis on proportionate punishment during the Enlightenment and eventually led to a preference for imprisonment for all capital crimes except firstdegree murder. Goodheart concludes by considering why Connecticut, despite its many statutory restrictions on capital punishment and lengthy appeals process, has been the only state in New England to have executed anyone since 1960.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-024-6
    Subjects: History, Law, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION: The Paradox of Capital Punishment
    (pp. 1-6)

    On November 13, 1817, more than 15,000 people—men, women, and children—converged on Danbury, Connecticut. It was an unusually large gathering for the time. Some had traveled from as far away as twenty-five miles and arrived the previous night. They came to see the public execution that day of Amos Adams, a twenty-eight-year-old African American who had been convicted of raping Lelea Thorp, a married white woman and mother. Adams was to be the last person in Connecticut executed for a capital crime other than homicide.¹

    In contrast, Michael Ross in 2005 died by lethal injection in a supermaximum...

  6. 1 BIBLICAL RETRIBUTION, 1636–1699
    (pp. 7-37)

    Capital punishment was not a casual or arbitrary matter for the Puritans of New England. Scrupulous attention was paid to law and procedure, which were influenced by English tradition and scriptural interpretation. The saints, God’s elect, held the individual responsible for his or her actions, which were mea sured against the law, and the law’s ultimate basis was believed to be sacred.¹ In the Connecticut and New Haven Colonies (two separate plantations until the latter merged with the former in 1665), thirty-one people were judicially executed in nonmilitary situations over the course of the seventeenth century. Puritan statutes did not...

    (pp. 38-68)

    The discord that had bedeviled the Puritan errand into the wilderness after the mid-seventeenth century became manifest during the eighteenth, well before the onset of the American Revolution.¹ Demographic growth and economic development played a dynamic role in reshaping institutions and expectations, to which the shattering religious revivals of the 1740s were a major response. Francis Fane, counsel to the British Board of Trade and Plantations, was correct that the capital laws of Connecticut that he reviewed in 1733 “will want much alteration.” The revised Connecticut Code of Laws of 1750 not only eliminated a number of capital crimes, but...

  8. 3 THE ERA OF NEWGATE PRISON, 1773–1827
    (pp. 69-99)

    Throughout the Western world during the late eighteenth century, Enlightenment intellectuals challenged the death penalty. This pivotal period, which culminated in the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, was characterized by what one scholar has called the “inventing of human rights.”¹ Connecticut too was part of the international ferment in criminal justice. Over the course of seven months in 1786, theNew Haven Gazettereprinted the entire English translation of twenty-eight-year-old Cesare Beccaria’s influentialOn Crimes and Punishment(1764). “Is it not absurd, that the laws, which detest and punish homicide, should,” the Milanese count asked, “in order to prevent murder,...

    (pp. 100-131)

    During the antebellum period, the first systematic debate over capital punishment occurred in the northern and midwestern states. In the Old South, where draconian measures were essential to maintain racial subjugation, little discussion ensued. Connecticut was no exception to the general rule. The divide between opponents was passionate and acrimonious, reflecting antagonistic perceptions of human nature and how to achieve the good society. Supporters of the death penalty argued that it was essential to the maintenance of law and order. They stressed sober Calvinist sentiments of original sin and the divine imperative of the execution of murderers. Opponents responded that...

    (pp. 132-164)

    By 1900, a dynamic corporate capitalism profoundly dominated the United States. Connecticut was at the heart of the urban and industrial transformation that Civil War spending in the “munitions state” had brought to fruition. Huge factories employed a vast number of workers. Textiles—cotton, wool, silk, and thread—were concentrated in the eastern part of the state and were the largest industry in Connecticut. Hartford, made the sole capital in 1875, dubbed itself the insurance capital of the world. New Haven, the former dual capital, had a variety of manufacturing concerns. Weapons makers in several areas dominated the national market....

  11. 6 THE WANING OF EXECUTIONS, 1930–1960
    (pp. 165-195)

    From the Great Depression through the immediate post–World War II era, several crucial turning points occurred in Connecticut’s policies affecting capital punishment. After almost a half century of hanging the condemned at the penitentiary, the state adopted electrocution in 1937, well after its implementation elsewhere. Officials saw electrocution as efficient and up to date. Influenced by humanitarian impulses after World War II, legal maneuvers blocked executions from 1949 to 1954 in Connecticut. In 1951, the legislature adopted a statute that for the first time allowed juries in verdicts of first-degree murder to recommend life in prison instead of execution....

    (pp. 196-226)

    Expansion of defendants’ rights and restrictions on capital punishment came as a result of rulings by the federal courts.¹ The culmination occurred in the 1972 decision inFurman v. Georgia. The United States Supreme Court in a controversial five-to-four opinion found that the arbitrary and inconsistent imposition of the death penalty violated the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments concerning cruel and unusual punishment and due process of the law, respectively. The ruling effectively shut down the death penalty in every state that had it. Connecticut was one of thirty-seven states to rewrite its capital code to comply with the revised standard....

    (pp. 227-248)

    Michael Ross, the inmate longest on Connecticut’s death row, did not join the 2005 suit to review racial bias and other disparities in the administration of capital punishment in the state. Like Joseph Taborsky, he was a prime candidate for capital punishment. Both were white men, serial killers of mostly whites. No racial element, capriciousness, or prosecutorial disparity was apparent in the convictions for their heinous crimes, which riveted the state. They preyed on strangers and were caught only after diligent police work. Both confessed. The crimes were horrific: Taborsky thrilled to gratuitous, execution-style shootings during petty robberies; Ross relentlessly...

  14. EPILOGUE: An Unworkable Death Penalty
    (pp. 249-252)

    The arrest, adjudication, and execution of Michael Ross took place over two decades. The duration far surpassed that of the 157 other people put to death in Connecticut in civilian courts over nearly four centuries. Rather than a vindication of the criminal justice system, the interminable process points to contradictions and complexities in Connecticut’s commitment to capital punishment. Simply put, the death penalty for almost a half century has been unworkable, unless the prisoner—Joseph Taborsky in 1960 and Michael Ross in 2005—waived appeals and volunteered for execution. Even then, in the latter example, there were extraordinary efforts to...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 253-306)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 307-318)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 319-319)