The History of the Death Penalty in Iowa


About IADP
Iowans Against the Death Penalty (IADP) is an independent, non-partisan, non-sectarian, grass-roots organization committed to preventing reinstatement of the death penalty in Iowa through public education and political activism.

IADP publishes an occasional newsletter, The Watch; sponsors public events around Iowa; and engages in active lobbying when death penalty legislation is pending in the Legislature.

IADP was founded in 1962 and was instrumental in promoting the repeal of Iowa's death penalty in 1965. In 1990 the organization was reconstituted in response to an initiative in the Iowa Legislature to reinstate the death penalty in Iowa. Since that time IADP has worked to bring together the voices of Iowans from all walks of life and religious and secular traditions who stand in opposition to the death penalty. Legislative proposals to reinstate the death penalty in Iowa were defeated in 1991, 1995, 1997, and 1998.

Iowans Against the Death Penalty Fund (IADPF) was formed in 1990 as a non-profit organization eligible to receive tax-exempt contributions that can be spent only on educational and charitable projects. In 1997 IADPF was granted exemption from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3). The Fund supports educational material associated with the death penalty and has reimbursed IADP for a portion of its newsletter costs.

Current Iowa law does not provide for punishment of any crime by death. Despite the fact that Iowa does not have the death penalty, in in October 2004 Dustin Honken was sentenced to death in the Federal Court system for the 1993 murders of three adults and two children. In May 2005 Angela Johnson was also convicted and in June was sentenced to death for her involvement in the case. Johnson will be the first woman executed by the U.S. since 1953. The victims were Terry DeGeus, Greg Nicholson, Lori Duncan; and Duncan's daughters, Kandi, 10, and Amber, 6. More than sixty federal crimes are punishable by death, thus the death penalty can be imposed for a federal crime committed in Iowa even though Iowa itself does not have a death penalty.

Public opinion surveys have shown that a majority of Iowans tend to favor capital punishment, but although broad, support is not very deep. In fact, support for the death penalty drops to barely 50% when survey respondents are asked whether they prefer death or life with no chance for parole as punishment for first-degree murder. Many Iowans are unaware that Iowa law already provides for imprisonment with no chance for parole, and many who favor the death penalty in principle support it less enthusiastically, or turn against it outright, when they learn how it works (or doesn't work) in practice in other states.

In March 1995, the Senate voted 39-11 to reject a capital punishment bill. Ten Republicans and one Democrat voted in favor of the bill, and 13 Republicans and 26 Democrats were opposed. The bill voted down by the Senate was nearly identical to one approved, 54-44, a week before in the Iowa House.

The bill would have left people guilty of several serious crimes eligible for death by injection. The crimes would have included murder committed to silence a rape or kidnap victim; the murder of a child, police officer or prison guard; and murder marked by "exceptional depravity." IADP efforts were instrumental in defeating this legislation.

During the 1998 legislative session IADP's efforts overwhelmed pro-death penalty politicians who had again mounted a death penalty bill. Iowans from across the state, and from the religious community in particular,stood together to resist the reinstatement effort. A public hearing on February 4, 1998, in the chamber of the Iowa House of Representatives proved a landslide victory for those opposed to state executions. Leaders of several religious communities, including an archbishop, bishops, rabbis, and pastors, were among nearly 70 Iowans who testified in opposition to the bill. Then-governor Terry Branstad, an enthusiastic promoter of the death penalty, lamented in a press conference shortly after the hearing that Iowa's death penalty opponents were "strong and well organized."


1834: First (nearly) legal execution in Iowa Territory, in Dubuque: Patrick O'Connor is hanged 6/20 for murdering his cabin-mate George O'Keaf on 5/9. Criminal law of Michigan Territory, which governed neighboring Iowa County (now part of Wisconsin) was not extended west of the Mississippi to the "counties of Dubuque and Demoine" until 10/1 of that year, but O'Connor was tried and sentenced in an orderly manner several days after the crime by a jury of peers, and appeals were made to the governor of Missouri and to President Jackson, both of whom determined that they had no jurisdiction over the case. (Childs, pp. 363-66; Oldt, p. 447)

1838: From Governor Robert Lucas's first annual message to the Territorial General Assembly: "[T]he general conclusion [of 'some of the greatest statesmen and philanthropists of the age'] has been . . . that the general policy of all criminal laws should be to prevent crimes, rather than to inflict punishment, and that all punishments should be inflicted with a view to reform, rather than exterminate, the criminal. In these conclusions I heartily concur, and would wish to see confinement at hard labor, for life, substituted in all cases, in lieu of capital punishment, when suitable prisons for the purpose can be had." (Acton, p. 30)

1839: Iowa’s first Territorial Legislature passes criminal code prescribing punishment by death for first-degree murder (1); arson, burglary, and robbery when death of an innocent person ensues (27, 28, 32); and perjury resulting in a wrongful conviction for murder (56). Section 101 specifies hanging as the means of execution, and 102 makes the defendant's body available "on application of any reputable surgeon or surgeons" for dissection. (L1838-39; Acton, p. 136)

1845: First execution under Iowa territorial law: Mormon brothers William and Steven Hodges are hanged together before a large crowd near Burlington on 7/15. Both vehemently maintain their innocence to the end and blame prejudice against Mormons for their conviction and sentence based on scanty evidence. (Acton, pp. 49-51; BHE 7/17/1845)

1851: Public sentiment grows against capital punishment. The Iowa Senate votes to abolish; the revised criminal code ultimately adopted that year limits eligible crimes to murder in the first degree (2569, 2572) and treason (2565). The method for execution (3079-86) provides for executions to be held either in public or in private. (C1851; Acton, pp. 136-145)

1872: Governor Cyrus Carpenter signs abolition bill passed by Iowa House and Senate 5/1 following an enthusiastic campaign led by Wisconsin abolitionist Marvin Bovee and supported by Quakers and many newspapers. (L1872, Ch. 136; C1873, 3845, 3849, 3852; Acton, pp. 137-140)

1874: Charles Howard is lynched by a mob in Des Moines following conviction on 12/14 for first-degree murder. In sentencing Howard, a passionate Judge Hugh Maxwell had expressed regret that the death penalty had been abolished and had virtually recommended lynching, calling Howard "a fiend" and lynch mobs "our best citizens." Howard's lynching at the jail that same night by a mob of some 100 masked men, along with two subsequent lynchings in 1875 and 1877, were widely blamed in the press on the unavailability of a legal death penalty. (Acton, p. 141; ISR 12/15/1874)

1876: Restoration of capital punishment fails by one vote in the Iowa Senate. (Acton, p. 142)

1878: Governor John Gear signs bill passed by Iowa Legislature 3/26 to restore capital punishment, giving juries a choice of a life sentence or death by hanging for first-degree murder. Treason remains punishable only by life imprisonment. The new law bars under-age persons and any but authorized persons (necessary officials and guards plus invited witnesses, relatives, clergy, etc.) from witnessing executions. Iowa becomes the first English-speaking jurisdiction in the world to abolish capital punishment and then reinstate it. (L1878, Ch. 165; C1880, 3845, 3849, 3852; Acton, pp. 143-144) [The 1878 law remains unchanged until repeal in 1965, but sections are renumbered as 4724, 4728, and 4731 in 1897; 12911, 12924, and 12961 in 1924; and 690.2, 692.1, and 697.1 in 1946. (ICA 1979, 707)
1894: James Dooley, at 18 the youngest person to be executed in Iowa, is hanged on 10/19 for murdering his aunt and cousin two years earlier when he was 16. His was apparently the first execution at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. (DMWL 10/25/1894)

1918: Iowa’s only triple execution as black soldiers Robert Johnson, Fred Allen, and Stanley Grammel are hanged on 7/5 at Camp Dodge, near Johnston, after being convicted by an Army court martial of raping a white 17-year-old girl. (Watts, p. 25; DM Reg 7/5/1918)

1935: The first double execution under Iowa state law as Pat Griffin and Elmer Brewer are hanged 6/5 at Fort Madison for murdering a deputy sheriff. (Watts, p. 25; DM Reg 6/4 and 6/5/1935; DM Trib 6/5/1935; DM Reg editorial 6/6/1935)

1938: Peak year for executions (4) in Iowa: John M. Mercer and Allen B. Wheaton on 1/24, and Marlo Heinz and Franz A. Jacobsen on 4/19. Mercer's body was claimed by Ida Chamness, a Quaker who had befriended him during his imprisonment, and was buried on her farm near West Branch. (Watts, p. 25; DM Reg 1/23, 1/24, 1/25/1938; DM Reg 4/19, 4/20/1938)

1946: Father and son Philip and William Heincy are hanged together on 3/28 for murder. Philip, 72, is the oldest person to be executed in Iowa. (Watts, p. 25; DM Reg 3/27, 3/28, 3/29/1946)

1962: Last executions under Iowa law, at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, of Charles Noel Brown on 7/24 and Charles A. Kelly on 9/6, convicted together of murder. (DM Reg 7/24, 9/6/1962)

1963: A bill to abolish Iowa’s death penalty passes the House (2/6) but apparently dies in the Senate without coming to the floor for debate. A public hearing on the bill is held 3/28. (DM Reg 3/29/63)

1963: The federal government executes Victor Harry Fegure at the Iowa State Penitentiary on 3/15 for kidnapping and murder. (DM Reg, 3/14 and 3/15/63; more detailed Associated Press stories appeared in ICPC, 3/14, and DMD 3/16/63) Fegure was the 41st person legally executed in Iowa since statehood (DM Reg, 3/3/95); the first person to be executed under the 1932 federal kidnapping statute ("Lindbergh Law") (DMD 3/15/63); and last person executed by the federal government until Timothy McVeigh was executed on 6/11/2001. (DM Reg 6/12)

1963: Nine days after the highly publicized Feguer execution: "A Davenport boy was in serious condition in a Davenport hospital Sunday [3/24] after he became entangled in a rope while playing 'hangman' with his younger brother." A 12-year-old neighbor passing on his way to church noticed the 11-year-old victim hanging by his neck from a rope thrown over a bar in the garage and alerted the victim's mother. She cut the boy down and performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (a novel rescue technique at the time) until firefighters arrived and administered oxygen. (DM Reg 3/25/63; DMD 3/26)

1965: Iowa Legislature votes to abolish capital punishment (House votes 39-29 on 2/6; Senate votes 35-20 on 2/19) (DM Reg 2/6 and 2/19/65); bill signed into law by Governor Harold Hughes. Iowans Against the Death Penalty is instrumental in lobbying for abolition. (C1966, 690.2, 692.1, and 697.1; Acton, p. 279)

1968: First year in U.S. history with no legal executions nationwide. (NY Times, 1/5/69, sec. IV, p. 11)
1970: Reinstatement bill passes House Law Enforcement Committee (March or early April). Most 1970s proposals specify electrocution; at least one would retain hanging.

1975: Three reinstatement bills defeated in Iowa Senate on 2/19 and 2/20. (DM Reg 2/21/75)

1976: Reinstatement bill defeated on 3/9 in Iowa House. (DM Reg 3/10/76)

1990: Governor Terry Branstad makes reinstatement of capital punishment a cornerstone of his successful campaign for re-election. Iowans Against the Death Penalty re-activates.

1993: Reinstatement bills die in House subcommittee (January and March). All 1990s proposals specify lethal injection.

1995: Reinstatement bill passes Iowa House on 2/23 following an unusually candid, emotional, and widely publicized floor debate. Senate votes on 3/2 against reinstatement. (DM Reg, 3/3/95)

1997: Reinstatement bill fails again. (DM Reg, 4/15/97)

1997: Arguing that defendants should not face a federal penalty that is not permitted under state law, U.S. Attorney Don Nickerson accepts guilty pleas in exchange for life without parole instead of going to trial and seeking the death penalty on federal carjacking charges against two defendants in an Iowa double murder/carjacking/bank robbery case. Plea bargain is upheld in U.S. District Court over protests from politicians and the victims' families. (DM Reg 12/31/1997, 1/1/1998, 1/7/1998)

1998: Reinstatement bill fails yet again (DM Reg, 2/13/98); Governor Branstad characterizes death penalty opponents as "strong and well organized."

2001: Two legislative leaders announce they intend to introduce death penalty legislation during the 2002 legislative session. (DM Reg 10/26/01)

2003 – Iowans Against the Death Penalty marks its 40th anniversary at its annual meeting, Saturday, October  25. The Governor Harold E. Hughes award is established by the organization to recognize individuals for their advocacy in resending the death penalty or in helping to maintain Iowa’s position as a non-death penalty state.  IADP presented the award to Charles E. Day and Marjorie Parris, two of IADPs original members.

2004 – In October, Dustin Honken was convicted and sentenced to death in the Federal Court system for the 1993 murders of three adults and two children in Mason City. He is the first Iowan in 40 years to be sentenced to death.

2005 – In May Angela Johnson was convicted and in June sentenced to death in the Federal Court system for the 1993 murders of three adults and two children in Mason City. The last woman the U.S. government executed was Bonnie Brown Heady for the kidnapping and murder of 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease in 1953.

2006 – Iowans Against the Death Penalty receives a $20,000 grant from The Tides Foundation to hire a project manager to help with outreach and education.

2007 – The second Gov. Harold E. Hughes Award was presented to Gov. Tom Vilsack, University of Iowa law professor David Baldus, Des Moines attorney James Benzoni, and the late Sen. John Ely.

2012 – The third Gov. Harold E. Hughes Award was presented to Marty Ryan for his years of legislative advocacy in fighting reinstatement of the death penalty in Iowa.

Acton, Richard, Lord and Patricia Nassif Acton. To Go Free: A treasury of Iowa’s legal heritage (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1995).
BHE: Burlington Hawk-Eye
C(year): Code of Iowa (year)
Childs, C. The History of Dubuque County (Chicago: Western Historical Co., 1880).
DMD: Davenport Morning Democrat
DM Reg: Des Moines Register
DM Trib: Des Moines Tribune
DMWL: Des Moines Weekly Leader
ICA 1979: Iowa Code Annotated, 1979
ICPC: Iowa City Press-Citizen
ISR: Iowa State Register (newspaper), Des Moines
L(year): Laws of Iowa (year)
NY Times: New York Times
Oldt, Franklin T., ed. History of Dubuque County, Iowa (Chicago: Goodspeed Historical Association, 1911?, facsimile ed. 1994)
Watts, Fred N. Iowa State Penitentiary, 1839-1965 (Fort Madison: I.S.P., 1965). Contains a list of executions (names, dates, crimes) at the Iowa State Penitentiary from 1878 through 1965.


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