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1957: Death Penalty Defeated in AK

The other day, I got curious about press coverage regarding the Alaska Territory’s decision to abolish the death penalty back in 1957. Newspaper indexing for that period is spotty, but thankfully the Alaska State Library hosts a decent index to Fairbanks newspaper headlines from 1900 – 1974. The index can be found at http://www.eed.state.ak.us/lam/newspapers.cfm.

Poking around 1956 and 1957 using the terms “Death Penalty” and “Capital Punishment,” I found the following articles of interest:

Open letter to Alaska Constitutional Delegates from Norman Hogg
Fairbanks News Miner, January 13, 1956, page 4.

Bill Would Oust Death Penalty
Fairbanks Daily News Miner, February 16, 1957, page 1.

Death by Hanging Outlawed by House on Taylor’s Bill
Fairbanks Daily News Miner, February 22, 1957, page 2.

Mr. Hogg’s open letter to Delegates was a plea for them to ban the Death Penalty in the new State constitution. He brought up arguments that would be familar in today’s debate. That states with the Death Penalty did not seem safer than ones without, that life without possibility of parole was better for society as a whole, and that life was too sacred for the State to have a right to take it away.

The State Constitution did not address the Death Penalty. It was neither forbidden nor enshrined.

A bill to abolish the territorial Death Penalty, was introduced in February 1957 (see second article) by two Democrats. They were Rep. Warren Taylor, a Fairbanks lawyer and Rep. Victor Fischer, a professional municipal planner.

In an interview published on February 16th, 1957, Taylor stated, “It [the Death Penalty] now only falls on some poor, unfortunate, ignorant, homeless individual who is hornswoggled from the time he gets into court.” The February 22nd article noted that Rep. Taylor had participated in 31 homocide trials, both as a prosecutor and a defense attorney.

After a day and a half of debate, the Alaska House voted 14-9 to ban the Death Penalty, according to the February 22, 1957 Fairbanks Daily News Miner.

I could not locate an entry in the newspaper index covering the Senate vote, but the death penalty ban did become law as 1957 Alaska Territorial Session Laws ch. 132 sec. 1.

In addition to the newspaper articles I found, I also located two interesting pieces of background information on how Alaska’s death penalty was administered:

Abolition of Alaska’s Death Penalty
By Dave Kiffer
Ketchikan SitNews, October 15, 2005

A History of the Death Penalty in Alaska
Compiled by Melissa S. Green
University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center
September 21, 2001

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