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Capital Punishment

When the Dakota Territories first made laws in 1865, they based them on the New York penal code, which dictated that murder was always punishable by hanging. In 1883, the option of life in prison was added. Subsequently, imposition the death penalty began to fall off as North Dakota juries were reluctant to make such final decisions.

Many immigrants from totalitarian regimes distrusted capital punishment. In 1915 citizens petitioned against execution, and later that year the state struck it down except for treason or when murder was committed by an inmate already sentenced to life. That latter provision was removed in 1973.

The first attempt to reinstate a death penalty came in 1926. People had begun to wonder if capital punishment actually had been a deterrent for hard criminals. From the beginning of 1926 to the end of 1927, the Bismarck Tribune published 37 articles favoring capital punishment. Attorney General George Schafer did believe it served as a deterrent, and he thought life sentences were too soft. Soon the legislative committee of the North Dakota Association of State Attorneys voiced support for the death penalty. In early January there was a bill in the legislature.

Many of the arguments in the senate reflected modern debates over capital punishment – deterrent vs. legalized murder. However, one discussion, left out of most modern debates, is whether it should apply to women as well as men. Some legislators felt the laws tended to be too lenient towards women, which encouraged them to kill their spouses in domestic disputes. However, one legislator felt the death penalty should apply only to men even if this was the case, because in his words, “[I]f a woman kills a man, the chances are he should have been killed long ago anyway.”

Ultimately, the death penalty was not reinstated. After the senate voted it down 30 to 19, the house followed suit about this time in February of 1927. Since then, there have been two more attempts to reinstate capital punishment, but there seems to be little chance of it returning.

Dakota Datebook written by Lucid Thomas



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