John Gordon, an Irish immigrant, was hanged in 1845 for the murder of Amasa Sprague, a wealthy Yankee mill owner in Cranston.
Historians say the trial was colored by class and ethnic prejudice against Irish Catholics. Gordon's appeal was rejected by the same judges who convicted him. The backlash helped lead Rhode Island to abolish the death penalty in 1852, The Providence Journal reported Monday.
Rep. Peter Martin has introduced a bill calling for Chafee to posthumously pardon Gordon.
"The state of Rhode Island created this problem," he said. "The state of Rhode Island has the responsibility to remedy it."
The measure is supported by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, and the state public defender.
"I think it rights a wrong," said the Rev. Bernard A. Healy, the church's government liaison.
The diocese believes the case exemplifies "innocent people getting killed by the death penalty" and mistreatment of immigrants. "The same thing could happen today," Healy said.