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The Solemn Sentence of Death

Capital Punishment in Connecticut

Lawrence B. Goodheart

Publication Year: 2011

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 first-degree 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.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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pp. iii

Copyright Page

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pp. iv

Table of Contents

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pp. vii


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

This detailed study of capital punishment since colonial times in one jurisdiction was feasible only because of extensive archival holdings and other primary sources at the Connecticut State Library in Hartford. Without such repositories and their capable staff s, projects like this one would not be possible. It is essential to the vitality of democracy that such institutions be supported by generous public funding and free access...

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Introduction: The Paradox of Capital Punishment

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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...

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Chapter 1: Biblical Retribution, 1636–1699

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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 measured 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...

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Chapter 2: The Emergence of Yankee Justice, 1700–1772

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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...

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Chapter 3: The Era of Newgate Prison, 1773–1827

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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...

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Chapter 4: The Debate Over Capital Punishment, 1828–1879

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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...

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Chapter 5: The Menace of the Criminal Class, 1880–1929

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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...

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Chapter 6: The Waning of Executions, 1930–1960

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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...

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Chapter 7: An Unofficial Moratorium, 1961–2004

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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 in Furman 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...

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Chapter 8: The Execution of Michael Ross, 2005

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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...

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Epilogue: An Unworkable Death Penalty

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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...


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pp. 253-305


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pp. 307-318

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760246
E-ISBN-10: 1613760248
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498464
Print-ISBN-10: 155849846X

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Capital punishment -- Connecticut -- History.
  • Criminal justice, Administration of -- Connecticut -- History.
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