Alaska as a state has never had a death penalty.
However, in Alaska's territorial days, eight men were executed under civil
authority between 1900 and 1957. Because these executions were conducted
by federal officials, the condemned men are generally classified in historical
statistics as federal, rather than Alaska, prisoners. See, for example,
the Death Penalty Information Center's list of federal
executions 1927 to present; this list includes the last three men included
in the table to the right. However, Constantine Beaver, executed in 1929,
is not included in the DPIC list.
Executed under Civil Authority
in Alaska, 1900-present
"John Doe" Hamilton
||Death penalty abolished
Other persons in Alaska were executed extrajudicially
in the late 19th century under so-called "miner's laws." There
is currently no easily available information on executions that may have
taken place under military authority in Alaska.
Executions under "miner's
Alaska became a U.S. territory in 1867
as the result of the Treaty of Cession, in which the U.S. purchased Alaska
from Russia, which had formerly claimed it. Early in Alaska's territorial
history, the federal government made few provisions for government or
law enforcement in the territory, relying chiefly on military governors
from the U.S. Army and, later, the U.S. Navy. The Organic Act of 1884
authorized the appointment of Alaska's first territorial governor, established
a territorial court in Sitka, and provided for a U.S. marshal, U.S. attorney,
and four unpaid, roving court commissioners headquartered at Juneau, Wrangell,
and Unalaska. In a territory of nearly 600,000 square miles — two-and-a-half
times the size of Texas — this effectively left most of Alaska without
an operative judicial process. By reference, the Organic Act adopted the
"Laws of Oregon, such as are applicable" for the governing of
Alaska. However, the Oregon Code stipulated that only taxpayers could
serve as jurors. Because no system of taxation was in place in the territory,
"legal" jury trials technically were not possible until Congress
enacted the Code of Criminal Procedure for Alaska in 1899.
The Organic Act of 1884 also extended federal
mining law to Alaska, thereby providing for the organization of mining
districts and the election of local recording officers. Absent other government
institutions in many areas of Alaska, miner's institutions were often
the only form of government in some places, and paved the way for unofficial,
ad-hoc miner's courts to administer justice on an as-needed basis. K.S.
Kynell (1991) writes, "Miners were not vigilantes. They organized
into prosecuting bodies only within their own camps, and usually discriminated
between such concepts as motive and result. Based on rough analogies to
the common law, the miners's code limited its punishments to three: hanging
for murder, banishment for assault and stealing, and a fine for all other
offenses" (p. 36).
A Cassiar miner was executed by a miner's
court in the Southeast Alaska town of Wrangell in January 1879 for the
murder of another man in a dispute over a woman, and two Auke Indians
were executed by a miner's court in Juneau in July 1883 for the murders
of a local storekeeper and a miner, both white (Williams 1991, p. 10).
A miner's meeting carried out an execution for murder on the Valdez trail
during the Klondike gold rush of 1898 "and left the body hanging
because most of the participants were anxious to continue their march
to the Klondike" (p. 11).
Records before 1900 are poor, but it is
believed that a total of seven persons were hanged in territorial Alaska
from 1869 to 1900. Of these, four were Alaska Native and one was white;
the race of the others is unknown (Harris 1993).
First executions under
Spurred by the rapid growth of Alaska's
population due to the Klondike Gold Rush, Congress in 1899 enacted the
Code of Criminal Procedure for the Territory of Alaska, which made legal
jury trials possible, provided for additional territorial judges, marshals,
and district attorneys, and defined new crimes. The first two men executed
in Alaska in the twentieth century were gold rush participants, but for
the first time the courts that convicted them were authorized by law.
Miner's courts had become a thing of the past.
Fred Hardy, a white man, was convicted
in 1901 of murdering and robbing three men on Unimak Island. He was hanged
in the gold rush town of Nome in 1902 (Lerman 1994).
Homer Bird, also white, shot and
killed his partner in front of several witnesses. He was hanged in Sitka
in 1903 (Lerman 1994).
The context of executions
in territorial Alaska: Race and money
Each of the eight men executed under civil
authority between 1900 and 1957 were convicted of murder. Of these, only
two of the eight men hanged during this period were white. Three of the
executed men were Native, two were African American, and one was a foreigner
of unknown race from Montenegro (a small European nation on the Balkan
Peninsula) (Lerman 1996). In contrast, most murders committed in territorial
Alaska were committed by white men.
At least one convicted murderer, a white
man named Edwin Krause,
was sentenced to death but was not executed. Krause escaped from the federal
jail in Juneau two days before his scheduled hanging in 1917 and was killed
by a homesteader several days later (Williams 1991, p. 10).
Other white murderers escaped the noose
in other ways. For example, in 1904 Vuco Perovich murdered
a fisherman near Fairbanks in 1904 by splitting his head and chest with
an axe, then attempted to cover his crime by setting his victim's body
and cabin on fire. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang, but
with the financial backing of his friends he was able to afford legal
appeals. President William Taft commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment;
President Calvin Coolidge granted him a pardon. Perovich left prison to
become successful as a Rochester, New York, businessman (Lerman 1994).
William Dempsey, also white, murdered
a woman in 1919 and evaded arrest for that crime by murdering a U.S. marshal.
He was convicted and sentenced to hang for both murders, but his family
could afford an attorney who succeeded in petitioning President Woodrow
Wilson for clemency. President Wilson commuted Dempsey's sentence to life
imprisonment (Lerman 1994).
In contrast, of those Alaskans actually
executed, four had sought clemency from four presidents — Wilson, Hoover,
Roosevelt, and Truman — but all failed (Lerman 1994).
Of 183 persons determined to be responsible
for the 178 homicides in Alaska from 1935 to 1958, 138 were white (over
75%), 2 were black, 10 were Eskimo, 22 were Indian, 7 were Filipino, and
1 was "Other" (Kynell 1991, p. 200. Note that 17 of the 178
homicides examined in this study were "accidental or negligent"
homicides, not usually classed as murders in standard crime reports such
as the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports). By contrast, the three executions
which took place during the same period were all of nonwhites — one Native
and two blacks. Ten life sentences were imposed upon convicted murderers
from 1935 to 1958; the average sentence length for non-capital, non-life
sentences was 10.7 years (Kynell 1991, p. 121).
Three Fairbanks executions
Three men were executed in Fairbanks in
Mailo Segura, an immigrant from the
Balkan nation of Montenegro, was convicted in 1918 of shooting and killing
his employer in Flat, a gold rush town on the Iditarod trail. Segura claimed
that his employer had refused to pay him for two years' work he had already
done as a wood chopper. Segura was represented by a court-appointed lawyer
who moved for a change of venue for his client's trial because of racial
prejudice against Segura — who though of European heritage was referred
to in trial documents as a "bohunk" and a "black fellow"
— as well as the prominence of the victim. The change of venue motion
was denied and Segura was convicted. He was executed by hanging in Fairbanks
in 1921. Authorities constructed a makeshift scaffold by constructing
a wooden platform between windows on the second floor of the courthouse
and the second floor of a bank building across the street. According to
published accounts of his execution, Segura was so terrified that he had
to be tied to a board to restrain him until the trapdoor could be opened
for him to be dropped to his death (Lerman 1994).
"John Doe" Hamilton was
a Native from the village of Shageluk who spoke no English. He was convicted
of the 1920 shooting death of his cousin. According to newspaper reports,
Hamilton told authorities his cousin's wife complained of being beaten
by her husband. Hamilton shot his cousin and hid his body, and the murdered
man's wife moved in with Hamilton. At Hamilton's sentencing, his court-appointed
attorney told the court, "The man is guilty, and there is absolutely
no reason which his counsel knows why sentence should not be pronounced."
Hamilton expressed shame for his crime and requested that he be hanged
in Alaska. He was hanged in Fairbanks in 1921. His body dropped too far
during the execution, and the force of his fall caused him to be decapitated
Constantine Beaver, an Alaska Native
who spoke no English, was convicted in 1929 of the shooting death of a
friend during a drunken brawl. His attorney, Thomas Drayton, was appointed
only a week before his trial. Drayton filed a motion to delay the trial
by a month, but the motion was denied. Because neither Beaver nor witnesses
to the killing spoke English, an interpreter was used. The jury was instructed
that if they found Beaver guilty, they could return a sentence either
of life imprisonment or they could return a ballot that was silent regarding
the sentence. The jury returned a guilty verdict which was "silent"
as to the penalty, and the judge sentenced Beaver to death. A week later,
three jurors filed sworn statements protesting the sentence and stating
they would have voted for life imprisonment had they known the "silent"
ballot would result in a death penalty, but the statements were rejected
because they were submitted three days past the deadline set for motions
in the case. Beaver sought to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment,
but President Herbert Hoover denied his appeal for clemency. Beaver was
hanged in 1929, reportedly taking nine minutes to die (Lerman 1994).
Three Juneau executions
Alaska attorney and historian Averil Lerman
has conducted extensive research on the history of the death penalty in
Alaska. Her 1998 article, "Capital Punishment in Territorial Alaska:
The Last Three Executions," details the trials and executions of
the three men executed in Juneau in territorial days — Nelson Charles,
Austin Nelson, and Eugene LaMoore. The article was based on documentary
evidence and interviews with over 50 people involved in some way in the
Nelson Charles was a 37-year-old
Native fisherman and World War I veteran, married with a daughter. Newspaper
accounts indicate that Charles was probably not an Alaska Native, but
a Native American from the Puget Sound area. He was arrested and convicted
for the September 4, 1938 murder of his mother-in-law, Cecilia Johnson,
in Ketchikan. Both Charles and Johnson had been drinking heavily at the
time of the murder. The Alaska Native Brotherhood petitioned President
Franklin Roosevelt for a commutation of Charles' sentence to life imprisonment,
but Roosevelt did not respond. Charles was hanged in Juneau on November
10, 1939 (Lerman 1994, 1998. For a full account of Charles' trial and
hanging, see Lerman
1996; see also Gaffney 1995, which provides
an eyewitness account of Charles' execution.)
Austin Nelson and Eugene LaMoore,
both black, were separately convicted and executed for the same crime,
the December 1946 murder of a 52-year-old (white) Juneau storekeeper named
Jim Ellen. Ellen's store had also been robbed. Ellen had immigrated to
the U.S. from Greece as a boy in 1909. He was a World War I veteran who
held memberships in the American Legion and the Juneau Elks Lodge (Lerman
Austin Nelson, a 24-year-old who did odd
jobs around Juneau, was arrested for the murder after a check written
by him to Jim Ellen was found on the store counter following the robbery/murder.
He was represented at trial by Henry Roden and Joseph A. McLean. Nelson
was convicted on circumstantial evidence, including that of a witness
who reported seeing him in the victim's store on the night of the murder.
No one witnessed the actual murder, nor was a murder weapon found, not
even the straight-edged razor witnesses testified that Nelson had once
owned. Nelson lacked money to pay for an appeal and there was no provision
for a public attorney in post-conviction proceedings, His execution was
set for July 1, 1947 (Lerman 1998).
Eugene LaMoore, a 42-year-old fisherman
with a Tlingit wife and two children, was originally an alibi witness
at Nelson's trial. He testified that he had spent much of the evening
with Nelson on the night of the murder, including along the avenue where
the victim's store was located. LaMoore's credibility with the jury was
apparently eroded when he initially denied a felony robbery conviction
of twenty years before. Although LaMoore returned to the stand the following
day to correct his testimony, he was arrested by U.S. Marshal William
Mahoney on a charge of perjury and held on a bond of $10,000 — a high
bond in 1947 — which LaMoore could not pay. He was held in a cell in
the federal jail, shackled in leg irons and, later, in a ball and chain.
He was repeatedly questioned by the local FBI agent and other local law
enforcement authorities about the murder of Jim Ellen. Shortly before
Nelson's scheduled execution, Nelson was brought to visit LaMoore in his
cell. According to later testimony by LaMoore, Nelson pled with LaMoore
to help save his life (Lerman 1998).
On July 1, 1947, the date of Nelson's scheduled
execution, LaMoore signed a typed confession stating that he had participated
in a robbery of Jim Ellen's store with Austin Nelson and that Nelson had
killed Ellen during the robbery. LaMoore was charged with first degree
murder. Nelson's execution was delayed because he was now considered a
material witness against LaMoore (Lerman 1998).
LaMoore was represented at trial by Henry
Roden and Joseph A. McLean, the same court-appointed attorneys who had
represented Nelson. The only significant evidence offered at trial to
suggest LaMoore's involvement in the murder was the typed confession he
had signed while in jail. At trial, LaMoore retracted the confession,
stating it had been made on the advice of a prominent Juneau attorney,
Herbert W. Faulkner, who had been persuaded by Deputy Marshal Walter Hellan
to come and talk with him (LaMoore had had no lawyer at the time). LaMoore
testified that Faulkner agreed to advise him, though Faulkner denied having
done anything except typing up what LaMoore wanted to say in the confession.
LaMoore also stated that the confession had been prompted by a desire
— especially after Nelson's visit to his cell — to delay Nelson's execution.
Despite his retraction and the lack of other significant evidence, LaMoore
was convicted by the jury and sentenced to death (Lerman 1998).
Nelson, who had been kept alive during LaMoore's
trial but was never called to testify, was executed on March 1, 1948,
a month after LaMoore's trial ended. LaMoore was executed on April 14,
1950 after an unsuccessful appeal (Lerman 1998). He reportedly took 13
minutes to die (Lerman 1994). His was the last execution to be held in
Abolition of the death
penalty in Alaska
After prolonged debate, the Alaska Territorial
Legislature abolished capital punishment in 1957 in a briefly worded measure
stating, "The death penalty is and shall hereafter be abolished as
punishment in Alaska for the commission of any crime" (Lerman 1994).
The abolition measure was sponsored by Warren Taylor and Vic Fischer.
According to Vic Fischer, one factor motivating abolition was apparent
racial bias in the application of the death penalty (Lerman 1994). A number
of attempts have been made to reintroduce capital punishment to Alaska
since 1957, but all so far have failed.
John L. (1995). "My Last Hanging — Thoughts
on an Execution (Juneau, Nov. 10, 1939)", We Alaskans
[Sunday magazine of the Anchorage Daily News], April 23, 1995.
Marwood D. (1993). "History of Death Penalty in Alaska." Memorandum
to Senator Johnny Ellis. Alaska Legislative Research Agency, February
K.S. (1991). A Different Frontier: Alaska Criminal Justice, 1935-1965.
Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991, p. 36.
Averil. (1994). "Death's double standard: Territorial Alaska's experience
with capital punishment showed race and money mattered." We Alaskans
[Sunday magazine of the Anchorage Daily News], May 1, 1994.
(1996). "The Trial
and Hanging of Nelson Charles. Alaska Justice Forum 13(1),
(1998). "Capital Punishment in Territorial Alaska: The Last Three
Executions." Frame of Reference [Alaska Humanities Forum]
9(1): 6-9, 16-19, April 1998.
Gerald O. (1991). Alaska State Troopers: 50 Years of History. Anchorage:
Alaska State Troopers Golden Anniversary Committee.