Death Penalty: No
Fall colors at Jay Cooke State Park, Carlton, Minnesota.
Photo by Prairie Bly.
The death penalty in Minnesota has been abolished since 1911. In his 1911 speech in favor of the abolition bill, Rep. MacKenzie stated, "Let us bar this thing of Vengeance and the Furies from the confines of our great State; Let not this harlot of judicial murder smear the pages of our history with her bloody fingers, or trail her crimson robes through our Halls of Justice, and let never again the Great Seal of the Great State of Minnesota be affixed upon a warrant to take a human life. . . ." Read more
Between 1860 and 1906, the State of Minnesota executed twenty-seven people by hanging, although more were executed under territorial government . The exact number of state-sanctioned executions is unknown because the Office of Governor Execution only has complete records from 1889 to 1910. Below are three of the more famous cases.
Ann Bilansky: One of the earliest recorded executions in Minnesota’s history was Bilanksy, who was convicted of murdering her husband by arsenic poisoning. Though even the prosecuting attorney in Bilansky’s case told Governor Alexander Ramsey the day before Bilansky’s execution that he had “grave and serious doubts as to whether the defendant had a fair trial,” the Governor refused to stay the execution. On March 23, 1860, Bilansky was executed by hanging. The execution took twenty minutes.
Mass Execution of the Dakota: On December 26, 1862, thirty-eight members of the Dakota tribe were executed by the federal government in the largest mass hanging in United States history. Though three hundred and three people were originally sentenced to death in rushed criminal trials that had, in some cases, lasted less than five minutes, President Lincoln stayed the execution of all but thirty-eight. Of those thirty-eight, some were later determined to be victims of mistaken identity.
William Williams: Williams was convicted of a controversial 1905 double murder of a mother and her 16-year-old son. Sentenced to death by hanging on February 13, 1906, Williams’ executioners failed to consider the stretch length of the rope. Newspapers of the day published the gruesome details of Williams’ feet hitting the ground, the frantic efforts of deputies to haul the rope upward, and the fourteen and one-half minutes it took for Williams to die by strangulation. Public interest in the botched execution set in motion a six-year movement to abolish the death penalty, culminating in Representative George MacKenzie’s impassioned introduction of the successful 1911 abolition bill in the Minnesota State House.
Attempts at Reinstatement
Minnesota has seen a number of unsuccessful attempts to reinstate the death penalty since 1911, including bills in 1913, 1915, 1919, 1921, 1923, 1927, 1931, 1933, 1937, 1974, 1975, 1986, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2005. Many of these efforts arose out of high-profile homicides. For example, the 2003 reinstatement bills were introduced in response to a triple murder in Long Prairie, Minnesota. Nevertheless, due to the efforts of legislators and organizations such as The Advocates for Human Rights and Minnesotans Against the Death Penalty (MNADP), attempts at reinstatement have thus far failed to pass the legislature.
Many thanks to The Advocates for Human Rights for contributing to this page.