Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Short Swing on the Death Penalty

cross posted from MN PP:

Two heinous mass shooters (alleged) are facing the death penalty, with court activity on their cases this week - Nidal Hasan for killing 13 and wounding 30 others in the Texas mass shooting at Fort Hood in November 2009 , and James Holmes in the Aurora Colorado mass shooting at a theater in July of 2012 where he killed 12 and injured 70. Holmes is pleading innocent by reason of insanity, while Nidal Hasan appears to be trying to achieve martyrdom by the death penalty through deliberately sabotaging his own case.

We do not have the death penalty in Minnesota, and have not since it was abolished after the botched hanging of William Williams in Minnesota in 1906. The William Williams case and the reasons for this being the pivotal case for the change in the laws, is especially interesting. It involved a homosexual relationship which received public sympathy. Williams entered a plea of not just insanity, but temporary insanity. There was a law in place which enacted censorship, which was illegally circumvented, leading to press coverage which was key to the public rejection of the death penalty when the Ramsay County Sheriff miscalculated the length of rope used to hang Williams, resulting in a botched hanging.

As noted in MNOpedia:
Williams used "emotional insanity" as his defense, saying that alcohol and an argument made him temporarily insane. After hearing readings of his intimate letters with Johnny Keller, including one where Williams threatened the boy, the court rejected this claim. The jury found Williams guilty of first degree murder, which meant that he would be executed.

Many Minnesotans were opposed to capital punishment at the turn of the twentieth century, but the state legislature was not able to repeal it. Governor John A. Johnson was against capital punishment but said he would enforce the law. Williams was set to be hanged on February 13, 1906. As required by the John Day Smith law, passed in 1889, his execution would happen in the middle of the night, with no journalists present.

The 1889 law, named after its sponsor, Representative John Day Smith, was passed because Minnesota had a long history of rowdy executions, including executions by lynch mobs that worked outside of the legal system. By suppressing information about executions, the Smith law was supposed to keep the public calm when executions occurred.
And as noted in the Death Penalty Information Center:
Minnesota has seen a number of unsuccessful attempts to reinstate the death penalty since 1911, including bills in 1913, 1915, 1919, 1921, 1923, 1927, 1931, 1933, 1937, 1974, 1975, 1986, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2005. Many of these efforts arose out of high-profile homicides. For example, the 2003 reinstatement bills were introduced in response to a triple murder in Long Prairie, Minnesota. Nevertheless, due to the efforts of legislators and organizations such as The Advocates for Human Rights and Minnesotans Against the Death Penalty (MNADP), attempts at reinstatement have thus far failed to pass the legislature.
In Minnesota, attempting to reintroduce the death penalty has been a largely partisan issue, promoted by the right. In 2003, it was last promoted by T-Paw and the Republicans.

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