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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Was the execution warranted -- it took place 130 years aago

Reviewing a trial, 13 decades later: State officials must decide if John Donahoe received a fair tri...

Apr 16, 2006 - Reading Eagle, Pa.
Author(s): Mike Urban

Apr. 16--John Donahoe's life ended on the gallows of the old Carbon County Prison nearly 130 years ago, but the debate over the fairness of his 1876 trial is very much alive.

The state Board of Pardons is considering whether to recommend that Gov. Ed Rendell grant Donahoe a posthumous pardon.

"Yellow Jack" Donahoe was one of 20 men executed in northeast Pennsylvania's hard coal region in the late 1870s, all purported members of a secret society known as the Molly Maguires. The group was named after an Irish woman, possibly fictional, who Irish said led reprisals against landlords for dis placing Irish people from hous ing in Ireland in the early and mid-19th century.

The 20 were convicted of killing mine and railroad com pany employees in an effort to force labor reform in the an thracite coal fields.

But many think the trials were rigged by the mining and railroad barons to quash a budding labor movement.

That belief prompted Donahoe's great-great granddaughter, Margaret Juran of Halifax, Dauphin County, to apply for Donahoe's pardon last year.

The board heard arguments March 2 and will meet again May 18. If there is a unanimous vote to recommend a pardon, Rendell will make the final decision.

There has been only one posthumous pardon in Pennsylvania, granted in 1976 by Gov. Milton Shapp to John J. Kehoe, an accused Molly Maguire who was hanged in 1877 after being convicted of killing mine foreman Frank W.S. Langdon.

Donahoe, of Tuscarora, Schuylkill County, was found guilty in 1876 of shooting mine boss Morgan Powell to death in Summit Hill, Carbon County, in 1871. He was hanged in 1877 with nine other men who authorities said were Molly Maguires.

Donahoe should be pardoned because he was denied due process, according to Juran's attorney, Grainger C. Bowman of Harrisburg.

Just as discrimination long robbed America's women of the right to vote and forced blacks to the back of buses, it brought about Donahoe's hanging, Bowman told the board. The execution is a blight on the nation's labor history, he said.

It was the coal and railroad barons -- not the state -- who led the investigation and prosecution, he said.

In the five years between Powell's murder and Donahoe's conviction, the prosecution extorted and coerced witnesses into incriminating Donahoe, Bowman said.

The local newspapers further inflamed the public against the Molly Maguires and those said to be members, and the jury contained no Irishmen but several immigrants who spoke little or no English, he said.

Bowman did not take a stance on whether Donahoe was innocent or guilty, only that he was unjustly convicted.

Juran, however, believes Donahoe did not kill Powell.

"There wasn't enough evidence to prove he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," she said. "The whole trial was a staged event, and it's a shame my great-great grandfather was hanged for it."

Carbon County District Attorney Gary Dobias opposes the pardon request.

Dobias, like Bowman, researched the case by reading hand-written trial transcripts, dusty court documents and old newspaper accounts. He found no evidence of a biased jury.

He conceded there was much prejudice toward the Irish in the anthracite region, but he said it didn't taint the trial.

Dobias feels a pardon could open the floodgates to others who were convicted long ago being wrongly pardoned.

Dobias is aware of the community's pro-Irish sentiment today. But Dobias said he cannot take those feelings into consideration. Donahoe should only be pardoned if the facts warrant it, he said.

The conviction withstood appeals up to the state Supreme Court, he pointed out.

Seven of Powell's direct descendants submitted affidavits calling for Donahoe's pardon.

But Powell's great-granddaughter, Barbara Garland of Summerville, South Carolina, and her son, Thomas Garland, think the trial was fair and the verdict, proper.

Thomas Garland told the board he feels for those who endured prejudice and had to work in unsafe conditions for slave wages. But that does not excuse the crime, he said.

"The facts in this case demand a guilty verdict in the 19th, 20th or 21st century," he said.

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