Gov. Alvan T. Fuller held an Aug. 3 hearing at the State House on a petition to commute the death penalty sentence for the carbarn trio convicted of murdering James A. Ferneau during the 1925 robbery of the Boston and Middlesex Street Railway office in Waltham (Boston Globe, Aug. 4, 1926, p. 1, 7).
After the hearing Fuller said he directed George M. Kline, State Commissioner of Mental Disease, to have John J. Devereaux examined by two alienists not connected with the case.
During the hearing, friends and relatives of the three men – Devereaux, John J. McLaughlin, and Edward J. Heinlein – spoke in favor of clemency.
Rep. Birmingham said he had known McLaughlin for 30 years and Devereaux for four years. Birmingham said that Devereaux did not appear normal to him, a condition he blamed on his war experience.
Birmingham said he believed that the three men must have been drinking at the time of the robbery.
The Legislative Committee on the Judiciary rejected on March 7 a number of bills calling for the abolition of capital punishment, including one introduced by Rep. Birmingham (Boston Globe, March 8, 1927, p. 8).
Other sponsors of the bills were Reps. James J. Twohig, C. F. N. Pratt, and Maurice J. Tobin, and Sens. John J. Mulvey and Wendell P. Thore.
The committee also rejected a petition from George Washington Chapter, S.A.R., for legislation to define the crime of syndicalism and for fixing a penalty.
Rep. Birmingham was one of only six representatives to vote in favor of a resolution asking Gov. Alvan Fuller to appoint a commission to review evidence in the Sacco-Vanzetti case, the Boston Globe reported (April 15, 1927, p 1, 17).
The House Rules Committee had recommended against suspending the rules to admit the resolution. Birmingham, along with five other legislators, voted to suspend the rules so the resolution could be considered. The House vote was 146 to 6 against suspending the rules.
The representatives joining Birmingham were the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Roland D. Sawyer of Ware, along with Reps. Tony Garofano of Lynn, C. F. Nelson Pratt of Saugus, Lewis R. Sullivan of Boston, and Charles A. Kelley of Worcester.
Birmingham, Sullivan, and Pratt said they voted in favor of suspending the rules because they were opposed to capital punishment.
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian-born American anarchists who were convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of a guard and a paymaster during a 1920 robbery of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree.
They were sentenced to death by the trial judge Webster Thayer. After a series of appeals and a lot of public controversy, they were executed on Aug. 23, 1927.
The governor did end up appointing a three-man commission to review the case, which decided that the verdict and death sentence were justified.
Rep. Birmingham spoke in favor of abolishing the death penalty on the House floor, the Boston Globe reported (March 10, 1927, p. 19).
Birmingham said repealing the death penalty was a matter of paramount importance. It was not a question of condoning crime; in fact, he favored swift and severe punishment for those found guilty.
He opposed any sentence that could not be revoked. He also questioned whether the death penalty had a deterrent effect on criminals.
Birmingham accused the state of being responsible for three murders in the car barn murder case. In that case, John J. Devereaux, John J. McLaughlin, and Edward J. Heinlein were convicted in the murder of James H. Ferneau, a watchman on duty at the Boston and Middlesex Street Railway office in Waltham, during a 1925 robbery, and put to death.
Birmingham opined that if they had been granted a new trial, they would have been found guilty of second degree murder only and likely would have received a life sentence.
Rep. William H. Hearn of Boston moved to substitute a bill that would put the question of whether capital punishment should be abolished on the ballot at the next annual election. He said that voters should be able to express their opinion on the issue. He stressed that he would not vote for a bill abolishing the death penalty without the referendum.
Rep. Thomas R. Bateman of Winchester raised a point of order that the Hearn amendment was beyond the scope of the petition. Rep. Louis L. Green of Cambridge moved postponement of further consideration to the end of the calendar year. The newspaper said the issue would probably be debated on March 10.
Rep. Birmingham said former Attorney General Arthur K. Reading was motivated by political ambition when he pushed for the death penalty for the men found guilty of the car barn murder case, the Boston Herald reported (May 21, 1929, p. 29, via Geneaology Bank).
John J. Devereaux, John J. McLaughlin, and Edward J. Heinlein were convicted in the murder of James H. Ferneau, a watchman on duty at the Boston and Middlesex Street Railway office in Waltham, during a 1925 robbery.
According to Reading and the prosecutorial team, Devereaux killed Ferneau during a struggle in which the watchman was shot and beaten. At the time, McLaughlin and Heinlein were robbing the railway cashier on the second floor. The jury found that all three men were guilty of first degree murder and given the death penalty.
Despite appeals by Birmingham and others for clemency, they were put to death by electrocution on Jan. 6, 1927, at the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown.
In an impassioned speech, Birmingham accused Reading of furthering his own political career by advocating for the death penalty. Subsequently, Reading was forced to resign as attorney general because impeachment proceedings were under way.
Birmingham was addressing a May 20, 1929, meeting of the City Club of the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. Rev. Raymond L. Calkins presided at the meeting, which included other speakers who favored abolishing capital punishment.
In July 1926, Rep. Birmingham urged Gov. Alvan T. Fuller to commute the death sentences of John J. Devereaux, John J. McLaughlin, and Edward J. Heinlein, who were convicted in the murder of James H. Ferneau, a watchman on duty at the Boston and Middlesex Street Railway office in Waltham, during a 1925 robbery.
At a July 13 meeting of the Massachusetts clemency committee in Brighton, Birmingham noted that the three men convicted in the Waltham car barn murder case had served in the U.S. armed forces and that this would be the first time that veterans had been put to death in the state. He urged the female members of the committee to redouble their efforts to stop these men from being put to death, according to an article in the Boston Globe (July 14, 1926, p. 14).
Also urging clemency at the meeting were Rep. Thomas S. Kennedy of Jamaica Plain and attorney Thomas Vahey. Kennedy said that interest in the petition calling for clemency was spreading throughout the state. Vahey noted that during his career as a lawyer he had been involved in 20 capital cases in Massachusetts and no clemency request had better or sounder reasons behind it than the Waltham car barn murder case, according to the newspaper.
The murder occurred during a robbery at the railway's office by the three men. According to prosecutors, Devereau killed Ferneau during a struggle in which the watchman was shot and beaten. At the time, McLaughlin and Heinlein were robbing the railway cashier on the second floor. The jury found that all three men were guilty of first degree murder and given the death penalty.
Despite the efforts of Birmingham, Kennedy, Vahey, and the Massachusetts clemency committee, the three men were put to death by electrocution on Jan. 6, 1927, at the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown.
In his third year as a state representative, Rep. Birmingham tackled the controversial subject of capital punishment. He introduced House bill No. 911 to abolish capital punishment as a penalty for the crime of murder. However, the bill did not make it out of committee.
Birmingham also introduced House bill No. 912 providing that juries be permitted to recommend the form of punishment of those found guilty of first degree murder. Again, the bill did not make it out of committee. This would be the fate of many of his bill in a Republican-controlled House.
Also in 1927, Birmingham introduced House bill No. 698, which provided for payment of compensation in cases of industrial accidents when employees are totally incapacitated.