Sara Ehrmann and the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Massachusetts

Sara Rosenfeld Ehrmann

Sara Rosenfeld Ehrmann. (Photo: Rochester Review, 1953. U of Rochester Libraries)

In 1928, a few months after the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, Sara Rosenfeld Ehrmann, a thirty-three year old Brookline housewife and mother of two young children, accepted leadership of the Massachusetts Council Against the Death Penalty (MCADP). It was not an enviable position. The Sacco-Vanzetti trials had split the Boston legal community and stoked popular fears that radical immigrants were a danger to the continued existence of law and order. Undeterred, year after year, Ehrmann appealed to skeptical legislators to abolish the death penalty. Success came in 1951. The legislature enacted a mercy law, allowing jurors to decide whether a convicted first-degree murderer would be sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Widely hailed as a victory singlehandedly achieved by Ehrmann, the mercy rule led directly to the abolition of the death penalty in Massachusetts.

Prior to Ehrmann’s breakthrough, two major efforts to abolish capital punishment in Massachusetts had failed. In 1830, young Robert Rantoul sat in a Salem courthouse and watched two boyhood friends be sentenced to death for murder. Six years later, as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Rantoul introduced a bill to abolish capital punishment. The bill sailed through the House, but lost in the Senate by a single vote. Nevertheless, during the next thirteen years, jurors and the Massachusetts Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment saw to it that not a single accused or convicted murderer was hanged in Suffolk County. But the popular coalition collapsed when it failed to save the life of Washington Goode, a poor, black man convicted of murder.

Led by Boston philanthropist Florence Spooner, the Massachusetts Anti-Death Penalty League gave the movement new life at the turn of the twentieth century. She brought together a diverse group of religious leaders, women reformers, and a handful of former Massachusetts governors to campaign for abolition. She linked that cause to the fate of five Chinese men convicted of slaying three others during a tong war. An appeal saved two of the condemned men, but racist arguments shaped the debate over whether the remaining three men should live or die and sapped the effort of its humanitarian content. On October 11, 1909, the three men were executed, one every fifteen minutes. The League disappeared two years later.

Sara Ehrmann picked up the abolition banner. Born in Kentucky in 1895, she grew up in Rochester, New York. Sara’s mother taught the children the fundamentals of Judaism, as well as a homespun universal religion, pacifism, and the politics of William Jennings Bryan. In the summer following her freshman year at the University of Rochester, Sara worked with the women’s suffrage movement. Shortly after her graduation in 1917, she married Herbert Ehrmann, a Harvard Law School graduate. The couple settled in Boston and with a burst of energy she sustained for almost four decades Sara took up the challenge of abolishing the death penalty.

Pictured wearing a hat, gloves and a pastel tailored suit, prior to her testimony before the Judiciary Committee, the Boston Globe described “Mrs. Herbert Ehrmann,” as “a petite brown-eyed woman.” Initially laughed at by members of the Judiciary Committee, her energy, persistence, and preparation eventually won a majority of the members to her side. Ehrmann inundated the lawmakers with data supporting abolition. She talked about specific capital cases to make legislators and the public aware of the imperfections of capital procedure. She used specific examples of wrongly accused and convicted men who had come perilously close to being mistakenly executed. And, she always asked every legislator she spoke with to support a mercy bill.

In the fall of 1948 Ehrmann organized independent Democrats for Paul Dever’s run for governor. She also wrote some of his speeches and solicited contributions to House member Thomas “Tip” O’Neill’s “fighting fund.” Dever won the governor’s office and Democrats took control of the House for the first time since the Civil War. During his two terms in office Dever commuted to life imprisonment the death sentence of every convicted murderer. His answer to critics was at once simple and powerful. “I question whether I or any human has the power to take a life,” he told a Herald columnist. “If I let a person die, I could see his mother crying at the grave, hear the clods of earth as they were shoveled onto the coffin.”

On April 3, 1951, Governor Dever signed into law a mercy bill. With the exception of murder committed during a rape, the law stipulated that anyone found guilty of murder should be sentenced to death unless the jury decided upon a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. “Success – At Long Last,” Ehrmann proclaimed. Now, she predicted, the struggle to abolish the death penalty would shift to the courts.

In fact, on three occasions between 1975 and 1984 the Supreme Judicial Court found the death penalty violated the Massachusetts Constitution. Ehrmann’s influence was evident in two of the three cases. In Commonwealth v. O’Neal (1975) the court struck down the exception the legislature had added to Ehrmann’s draft of the mercy law. In District Attorney v. Watson (1980) under the heading “The Death Penalty is Offensive to Contemporary Standards of Decency,” Chief Justice Edward Hennessey noted the complete absence of executions from 1948-1972. Jurors had used the mercy law in 100 of 132 cases and chose to sentence a convicted murderer to life imprisonment rather than death. Such a record, Hennessey wrote, demonstrated that jurors and a string of governors who refused to sign death warrants found the death sentence “unacceptable.” The court agreed.

A woman from Brookline had played a major part in abolishing the death penalty in Massachusetts.

About the Author

Alan Rogers

Alan Rogers teaches U.S. Constitutional and Legal History at Boston College. His recent books include Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts and The Child Cases: How America's Religious Exemption Laws Harm Children. On a sometimes happier note, he is a huge BC football fan.

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