Prior to the 20th century, capital punishment was a norm in American society for certain crimes. The passing of the Smith law outlawed public executions and limited the information given to the public regarding executions, which began legal changes on capital punishment in Minnesota. The 1906 botched execution of William Williams was the last execution in Minnesota. The abolition bill of 1911 ended capital punishment in Minnesota, breaking the barrier of cruel punishment. Minnesota was the fourth state to outlaw the death penalty, inspiring 19 other states to follow.
Capital punishment is defined as, “legally executing one as punishment for committing a crime”. Crimes that lead to the death penalty include, but are not limited to treason, murder, drug-trafficking, and human trafficking. In Minnesota, between 1860 and 1906, there was a total of 76 legal executions. Many Minnesotans opposed the death penalty at the turn of the twentieth century, but the botched execution of Willam Williams in 1906 shifted the public’s opinion on capital punishment in Minnesota. In 1906, Willam Willams was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The miscalculations of the length of the rope lead to a botched execution that lasted 14.5 minutes. The public outrage over the inhumane manner in which Willams was executed began a six-year movement that led to the abolishment of the death penalty in Minnesota in 1911.
The first major shift in Minnesota capital punishment laws was the signing of the Smith Law. Prior to 1889, executions in Minnesota were a public, daytime spectacle. Crowds gathered for mere entertainment during executions. Heavy alcohol consumption, rowdy crowds, and violent acts were commonplace during executions. “Public executions were a “?xture of American society,” according to law professor John D. Bessler. They were supposed to serve two purposes: civil and religious. As a civil “ceremony,” public execution was supposed to deter crime by demonstrating the authority of the state to punish those who violated the law. As a religious ceremony, it was supposed to demonstrate the danger of sin and provide religious leaders with the opportunity to urge attendees to repent.” In 1889, Minnesota passed the Smith Law. This outlawed public executions and restricted the information the public received regarding executions; all executions had to happen before sunrise, within the walls of the jail and forbade newspapers to print an account of the execution. Smith said the law was “intended to promote morality” and witnessing public executions was degrading to humanity. Despite the Smith Law, a reporter from the St. Paul Daily snuck into the execution of William Williams and witnessed the inhumane manner in which William’s died. The newspapers published gruesome details of the event which caused a public outcry to abolish capital murder in Minnesota.
William Williams was a British miner who immigrated to St. Paul. In 1904, Williams was hospitalized for Diphtheria, a highly contagious disease that infects your throat, causing you to have trouble breathing. While he was hospitalized, Williams met a teenage boy named John Keller, or “Johnny” who was fighting the same disease. The two instantly become friends and later developed a longterm, romantic relationship. Williams wanted to travel to Winnipeg with Johnny, but Mr. and Mrs. Keller opposed, resulting in a fight at the Keller household. This led to the murder of John Keller and his mother. Johnny was shot in the back of the head and died later that day, meanwhile, Mrs. Keller suffered a long, painful death until she died about eight days later. Williams immediately turned himself in to the police saying that alcohol-fueled “emotional insanity” is what led to him killing Johnny and Mrs. Keller. He claims that murdering Johnny was an accident, but the court ruled that he is guilty after reading the countless love letters that Williams wrote to Keller. These letters included profound statements of his love, but also threats to Johnny, who was only 14 years old at the time. The jury found Williams guilty of first-degree murder and Williams is to be put to death by the State of Minnesota.
On February 13, 1906, William Williams was put to death by the execution form of hanging. The executioners failed to measure the rope, causing Williams to suffer for 14.5 minutes. Following this execution, there was a major barrier that was broken: the barrier of cruel punishment in Minnesota. Cruel punishment like this goes against our basic rights as human beings. The right to life is being taken away, no matter what perspective you look at it from. There are circumstances where the court system wrongfully accuses someone and sentences them to death row. An execution cannot be reversed, so when an innocent person is put to death, it is unjust. Martin Luther King views the death penalty as, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars”.
Immediately following the abolishment of the death penalty in Minnesota, the court system changes. Criminals are put in prison, not death row. The wrongly accused are given a chance at defending themselves in trial instead of being put to death.
The longterm effects of abolishing the death penalty include 19 states following to outlaw the death penalty, capital punishment being used less and less, and the number of attempts to reinstate the death penalty in Minnesota. Following the abolishment, 19 states outlawed the death penalty. These states include Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. According to ‘New report shows decreased use of death penalty in U.S.’, capital punishment is being used less because there are states still working on outlawing it. Minnesota has attempted to reinstate the death penalty 23 times, in the years 1913, 1915, 1919, 1921, 1923, 1927, 1931, 1933, 1937, 1974, 1975, 1986, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2005.
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