While more inmates were executed in the United States in 1999 than in any other year since the early 1950s, the last legal execution in North Dakota took place in 1905. Apparently, more people have been lynched here than have been legally executed.
The U.S. Dept. of Justice reports 98 inmates were executed in 1999, more than in any year since 1951.(1) The department reports that 3,452 inmates were on death row at the end of 1998, a majority of them white.
Dakota Territory established the death penalty in 1865.(2) The penalty was carried into North Dakota law at statehood. In 1915, the penalty was restricted to persons convicted of committing a first degree murder while already under a life sentence for first degree murder.(3) The death penalty was abolished when North Dakota's new criminal code became effective, July 1, 1975.(4)
According to historian Frank E. Vyzralek,(5) only one legal execution took place in the northern half of Dakota Territory—in Grand Forks in 1885. Seven legal executions took place after statehood. The last one—John Rooney in 1905—was the first to take place inside the prison walls at Bismarck. Previous executions had taken place in the counties, usually next to the courthouse.
According to Vyzralek,(6) three lynchings took place in the northern half of Dakota Territory, and six took place in North Dakota after statehood. The last lynching was in McKenzie County in 1931.
The only triple lynching took place in Emmons County in 1897, and according to Vyzralek, it followed the North Dakota Supreme Court's reversal of the conviction of one of the three.(7)
The 1995 North Dakota legislature considered reinstituting the death penalty. The bill was defeated, following arguments based on morality and economics.
1. Key Crime & Justice Facts at a Glance, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
2. 1864-65 Dak. Terr. Sess. Laws, Penal Code, title IX, ch. II, § 247.
3. 1915 N.D. Sess. Laws ch. 63.
4. 1973 N.D. Sess. Laws ch. 116.
5. Frank E. Vyzralek, More about Justice on the Dakota Frontier (2000).
6. Frank E. Vyzralek, A Peek at Justice on the Dakota Frontier (2000).
7. See State v. Coudotte, 7 N.D. 109, 72 N.W. 913 (1897).