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Capital Crimes


Murders in North Dakota aren’t as numerous as most states, but the early years weren’t pretty, as North Dakota’s first archivist described in a speech before a federal judge on this date in 2000.

Frank Vyzralek’s address touched on the changing penalties for murder in North Dakota, starting with the penal code adopted by Dakota Territory in 1863. Two years later it was replaced with the code then in use in New York State.

By 1883, punishment for first degree murder in the territory was imprisonment or death by hanging. Second degree murder brought 10 to 30 years in prison. Eight killings were severe enough to warrant death before the legislature scrapped the death penalty in 1915, though any inmate who killed a prison guard could still receive death under a special section. Vyzralek said early North Dakota juries thought the death penalty was “odious,” and life imprisonment was more favored.

Early murders in the state were pretty horrific, including two transients beaten to death with rocks near Lansford, and a mother and child were killed near Inkster. The state’s first known mass murder came in 1894 when a couple and four of their children were slain near Cando. A farmhand was hanged for the murders.

The last legal execution in North Dakota was John Rooney in 1905. He killed a farm laborer during a robbery in Fargo.

While there’s no longer a death penalty on state books, Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr. was sentenced to death in 2007 in federal court for the murder of Dru Sjodin a Grand Forks student. He remains on death row.

The most recent execution is arguably the killing of Charles Bannon, a confessed murderer of a whole family who was hanged in 1931 over a bridge east of Watford City. But that was no legal execution. He was lynched by a mob.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


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