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  • The Lasting Significance of the Majors-Palakiko Case
  • Jonathan Y. Okamura (bio)

In a 2004 documentary on the life and contributions of Hawai‘i labor lawyer Harriet Bouslog, another long-time labor activist, Ah Quon McElrath, observed, “I think what we can say is that Harriet Bouslog had a lot do with abolition of the death penalty in the state.”1 She was referring to Bouslog’s work as the lead defense attorney in the Majors-Palakiko case, which is often connected to the elimination of executions in Hawai‘i in 1957; however, the case was not the primary factor. In 1948, James Majors and John Palakiko, two young Native Hawaiians, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged for the rape and murder of an elderly Haole woman, Therese Wilder, in what was called “the most sensational crime in Honolulu in 20 years.”2 Legal and community appeals of their convictions, including an unsuccessful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, eventually resulted in commutation of their death sentences to life in prison by the territorial governor in 1954. Three years later, the same governor, Republican Samuel Wilder King, signed the bill that ended capital punishment in the islands. [End Page 1]

In the limited literature by academics and journalists on abolition of the death penalty in Hawai‘i, as noted above, the Majors-Palakiko case is often related to abolition but without discussing how the case led to it. This article provides a lengthier discussion of the case and its relation to the prohibition of executions, as well as a fuller explanation of how the latter transpired. I emphasize several race-related factors, including the multiracial coalition that developed to advocate commutation of Majors’s and Palakiko’s death sentences and later abolition, the greatly transformed racial setting of Hawai‘i, which resulted from labor organizing by the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) after World War II, and the Democrats gaining control of the territorial legislature from the Haole-dominated Republicans for the first time in 1954. As is evident, as the dominant organizing principle of social relations in territorial Hawai‘i, race played a paramount role in all three factors and thus in ending capital punishment.

Majors-Palakiko Case and Racial Injustice

The significance of race, particularly racial injustice, is readily apparent in the highly publicized Majors-Palakiko or Wilder case, as it was initially called.3 On March 10, 1948, James Majors, aged twenty, and John Palakiko, nineteen, escaped from an Oahu Prison work gang in Chinatown and caught a city bus to the end of the line in Nu‘uanu Valley where they spent the night.4 They were both serving ten year sentences for burglary; Palakiko, a military prisoner, had been transferred from an army stockade after an escape attempt. Majors had a long record of arrests for burglary and escape since he was ten years old when he was placed in a Salvation Army facility for juvenile delinquents in 1937.5 The following year, he was taken into police custody after being found sleeping in A‘ala Park, six months after he had run away from the Salvation Army home.6 Palakiko’s parents divorced when he was young, and at age seventeen he was sentenced to three years’ probation for breaking into and burglarizing a home.7 He joined the army soon after, in 1946, and that same year was convicted, with three other youths, of robbing some sailors of their wallets and watches, for which he received fifty cents as his share and a ten-year sentence in the Schofield Barracks stockade. The sixty-eight-year-old [End Page 2] victim, Therese Wilder, was originally from California and in 1917 married William Chauncey (“Chan”) Wilder, whose father started the Wilder Steamship Co. that later merged with the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co.8 Her husband, who died in 1926 at age sixty, was connected to his father’s company for many years and was later a tax assessor in the territorial income tax division.

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Figure 1.

James E. Majors, published September 1951. Courtesy of the Honolulu...


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