Does Iowa Have The Death Penalty

Knowing which states do and don’t have the death penalty is important if you live in the United States. The death penalty is a controversial subject with many individuals both for and against it, which means that know if your state has it or not is very important both for your understanding of the culture of your state and if you or a member of your family gets accused of a capital offence.

So, if you have ever wondered does Iowa have the death penalty then you are reading the right piece as this article will explain whether or not Iowa currently has the death penalty and its history in the state.

Does Iowa Have The Death Penalty?

Let’s begin by answering the simplest questions first – does Iowa have the death penalty?

Iowa does not have the death penalty and in fact the death penalty was abolished in Iowa over fifty years ago in 1965 on a state level – as with all states that have abolished the death penalty of course, it still exists on a federal level. Iowa abolition of the death penalty and the time it was abolished might shock some.

However, it’s relationship is not that straightforward. Indeed, Iowa history with the death penalty is not only complicated but a fascinating example of how America has changed over its long history.

Iowa And The Death Penalty

Iowa first started on its path to statehood in 1833 when the first American settlers began to move into what had previously been French territory.

Iowa, like other parts of the midwest was purchased during the Louisiana purchases but would not formally become part of the United States until its admittance into the union in 1846 when President Grant signed Iowa’s admission into the union into law.

Iowa when it entered the union became a center for non-conformists and those who were not believers in the death penalty. This meant that many people who formed up the voting public in Iowa and subsequently important positions of authority were against capital punishment.

Indeed, the state’s first governor (during the period in which it was a territory and not an autonomous state) Robert Lucas in fact demanded that Iowa abolish capital punishment in 1838 at the first meeting of the Iowa Territorial Assembly – the move was however not put into action and Iowa would remain a capital state until 1872.

In 1872, Iowa finally managed to abolish capital punishment. Although there had been attempts, which had initially succeeded in Iowa’s House of Representatives and Senate in the 1850s, to abolish the death penalty, the legislation was not formally put in to place.

The 1872 ruling had been prompted by the scheduled execution of George Stanley, who had been convicted of the murder of William Patterson, who had once been Stanley’s foreman on the railway. Stanley had also had a brief affair with Patterson’s wife which had caused his dismissal from Patterson’s employ.

Despite the case being hardly sympathetic, Stanley was spared from execution four days before his allotted date. The religious attitudes of the people of Iowa won out and the death penalty, at least initially, seemed to have been abolished for good.

This wouldn’t last for long however because in 1878 the death penalty was reintroduced. The reason for this was the belief that the lynching of black men had increased since the abolition of the death penalty and only by reintroducing the death penalty could they be protected from racist gangs.



This sentiment was enough to make Iowa the first state to reintroduce capital punishment after having previously abolished it. The death sentence would stay in place until the 1960s.

In 1962 Iowa’s last execution under Iowa state law took place. It was the hanging of Charles Kelley who had been convicted of the murder of a man in Iowa and whose death occurred in the same year that Harold Hughes won the race for Governor of Iowa. Hughes would be instrumental in pushing for the abolition of the death penalty in Iowa.

Despite having grown up as a Republican, Hughes was convinced to run as a Democratic candidate for the 1962 Iowa Gubernatorial race and won. Hughes, like many other Iowans, was committed to abolishing the death penalty as soon as he could. The next execution in Iowa law would not come under Iowa’s state law but under US Federal Law.

As Hughes had no ability to interfere in state law he needed to work with the federal government in his attempt to convert the death sentence of Victor Feguer to life imprisonment.

Feguer, a drifter with no address and no home, arrived in Iowa and began working his way through the phone book calling every doctor he could find until he convinced Dr Edward Bartles to come out to see him because a pregnant woman needed assistance. Feguer then kidnapped and murder Doctor Bartles and was found attempting to sell his car in Alabama.

It was believed at the time and since that Feguer had killed Bartles for his drug supply.
Hughes’ attempts to turn Feguer’s death sentence to life depended on convincing President Kennedy’s willingness to commute his death sentence. President Kennedy refused, on the ground that he believed Ferguer’s crime was too awful to demand anything other than the death penalty.

Witnessing Feguer’s execution was House member John Ely who saw the execution as further proof of why the death penalty should be abolished. Ely worked with Governor Hughes to ensure that the death sentence was abolished in Iowa in 1965.

There have been subsequent attempts to repeal the death penalty in Iowa. During the 1994 Governor’s race, then incumbent and Iowa’s longest serving Governor, Republican Terry Branstad made it a solemn campaign commitment that he would reinstate the death penalty if he was re-elected.

However, although Branstad attempted to bring back the death penalty he didn’t try too hard – Iowa’s Democratic majority in its Senate pushed back on the suggestion and Branstad gave up on the idea.

There are many Iowans who do want to see a return of the death penalty. In 2006, a poll found that 66% of Iowans were in favor of bringing back the death penalty. Of course, no real attempt was made and no attempt will likely be made – for many, the issue has been settled for decades and will remain so.

Executions have occurred in Iowa since – however they have been executions by the federal government, the most notable being Timothy McVeigh who was executed in 2001 for perpetrating in 1995 the Oklahoma City bombing which caused the death of 165 people. Since then, only one other federal execution has occurred in Iowa, that of murderer Dustin Lee Honken in July 2020.

Why It Is Important To Know About The Death Penalty In Iowa

The reason it is important to know about the status of the death penalty in Iowa is because, in the United States, laws exist not only to protect but also to punish. There are many different opinions on what should and should not count as punishment and the death penalty is a controversial and divisive topic in the USA.

Therefore, to understand why Iowa no longer has the death penalty ensures that we are about to not only communicate with one another on this sensitive subject but also understand one another’s point of view and only by doing that can this great county move forward and decide whether the death penalty should be accepted or abolished.