The Death Penalty in Alaska

The Death Penalty in Alaska

Melissa S. Green

"The Death Penalty in Alaska" by Melissa S. Green. Alaska Justice Forum 25(4): 11 (Winter 2009). In January 2009, House Bill 9 was introduced in the Alaska State Legislature. The bill, if passed, would authorize capital punishment in Alaska for persons convicted of certain first degree murders, and would represent the first time that Alaska as a state authorized a death penalty. This article gives a brief history of the death penalty in Alaska, including summaries of the cases of the eight men executed in under civil authority in Territorial Alaska from 1900 to 1957, when the Alaska Territorial Legislature abolished it two years before Alaska became a state. A bibliography for further reading on the death penalty in Alaska is also provided.

In January 2009, Representative Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) introduced House Bill 9 in the Alaska State Legislature. HB 9, cosponsored by Representative Jay Ramras (R-Fairbanks), would authorize capital punishment in Alaska for persons convicted of certain first degree murders. HB 9 is currently under consideration in the House Finance and House Judiciary committees. Testimony on the bill was heard in the House Judiciary Committee on February 23 and February 25.

Table 1. Persons Executed under Civil Authority in Alaska, 1900-present

The bill's introduction has renewed interest in Alaska's history with regard to the death penalty. As a state, Alaska has never had a death penalty; however, in Alaska's territorial days, eight men, all convicted of murder, were executed under civil authority between 1900 and 1957. (Because these executions were conducted by federal officials, the condemned men are often classified in historical statistics as federal, rather than Alaska, prisoners.) Prior to 1899, "legal" jury trials technically were not possible due to inadequacies with laws in effect in the territory at the time; however, some executions took place extrajudicially under so-called "miner's laws." Records for the period 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. (There is currently no easily available information on executions that may have taken place under military authority in Alaska.)

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-and the first executed legally under judicial authority-were gold rush participants. Fred Hardy, a white man, was convicted in 1901 of murdering and robbing three men on Unimak Island. He was hanged in Nome in 1902. Homer Bird, also white, shot and killed his partner in front of several witnesses, and was hanged in Sitka in 1903.

Three men were executed in Fairbanks in the 1920s. 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. Though of European heritage, Segura was referred to in trial documents as a "bohunk" and a "black fellow," so there exists some uncertainty about his race. He was hanged in 1921. "John Doe" Hamilton, a Native from the village of Shageluk who spoke no English, was convicted of the 1920 shooting death of his cousin and was hanged in 1921. Constantine Beaver, an Alaska Native who spoke no English, was convicted in 1929 of the shooting death of a friend during a drunken brawl and was hanged later that year.

The last three executions in Alaska took place in Juneau. Nelson Charles was a 37-year-old Native fisherman and World War I veteran hanged in 1939 for the 1938 murder, in Ketchikan, of his mother-in-law after both had been drinking. (See "The Trial and Hanging of Nelson Charles" in the Spring 1996 issue of the Forum). 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. Nelson was executed in 1948 and LaMoore in 1950.

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." The abolition measure was sponsored by Representative Warren Taylor (D-Fairbanks) and Representative Vic Fischer (D-Anchorage).

A number of attempts have been made to reintroduce capital punishment to Alaska since 1957. Prior to the current bill HB 9, the most significant recent effort was Senate Bill 60 in the 20th Legislature (1997-1998). SB 60 passed in the Alaska Senate but was held up in the House Finance Committee and never made it to the House floor. Had it passed, SB 60 would have put an advisory vote on the death penalty before Alaska voters on the November 1998 ballot, which might have led to eventual enactment of a statute authorizing capital punishment.

Melissa Green is a Publication Specialist with the Justice Center. Further information on the history of the death penalty in Alaska is available on the Justice Center Web Site at Information about House Bill 9, including text and history of the bill, fiscal notes, and minutes of committee meetings, is available on the Alaska State Legislature website at using the search term "hb9."