April 14, 2013

Death penalty's demise in Maine

The famous Smuttynose Island case fueled the debate over executions that ultimately led to abolishing them.

By KAREN MARKS LEMKE Saint Joseph's College

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Why one year? The sentence was consistent with Maine's 1837 capital punishment law, which stated a sentence could not be executed until the convicted had been confined to the state prison for one year and one day. Wagner would be one of the last to benefit from this law.

The 1837 Maine law also had another stipulation: The sentence could not be completed until the governor issued a warrant ordering the execution, which had no time limit prescribed. 

This clause, coupled with Maine's strong sentiment against the death penalty, meant no murderer had been led to the gallows for 30 years.

Gov. Joshua Chamberlain recommended to the Legislature in 1867 to abolish the 1837 law or require the governor to issue a warrant for execution in a fixed time. No action was taken on either recommendation.

With the Legislature continuing to leave the death penalty squarely in the hands of its governors through the mid-1870s, the executive branch was entering its own protest: They didn't want to be, for all intents and purposes, the hangmen.

Finally, in 1875, the Maine Legislature responded by requiring the governor to sign a warrant for execution within 15 months of sentencing. 

It was this amendment that was ultimately responsible for slipping the noose around Wagner's neck. But Wagner didn't go quietly. He surprised his executioners by maintaining his innocence, and the following year, 1876, the death penalty was abolished.

But not for long. Resurrected in 1883, the law managed to pay one last hangman's salary.

David Wilkenson of Bath was hanged in 1885 for the murder of a Bath policeman, William Lawrence, who happened upon Wilkenson robbing a store. When the officer closed in, Wilkenson fired and killed the policeman.

The case was speedily wrapped up and Wilkenson was arrested, tried, convicted and executed. He would be the last to die at the hands of the state. 

On March 16, 1887, state Rep. William Engel of Bangor introduced a bill for the repeal of the death penalty one year later with these words: "Repeal the obnoxious law, and rise one step in civilization." Religious and activist groups throughout the state applauded the death of the death penalty.

In a final twist to the saga, the murder trial of Louis Wagner, an immigrant from Prussia, marked the first time in Maine history that an immigrant was tried for the death of another immigrant, Maren Hontvet of Norway. Anethe Christenson's murder did not go to trial.

Karen Marks Lemke of Lisbon Falls is an education professor at Saint Joseph's College in Standish.

 

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