Capital punishment in Michigan

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Capital punishment in Michigan was legal from statehood in 1837 until it was abolished in 1846 for murder. Michigan is one of the few U.S. states never to have executed anyone following admission into the Union (others include Alaska and Hawaii).

Michigan's death penalty history is unusual, as Michigan was the first English-speaking government in the world to abolish the death penalty for ordinary crimes.[1][2] The Michigan State Legislature voted to do so on May 18, 1846, which has remained in law ever since.[3] Although the death penalty was formally retained as the punishment for treason until 1963, no person was ever tried for treason against Michigan. Thus, Michigan has not executed any person since statehood.


With one exception, all executions in areas which are now part of the State of Michigan were performed before the state was admitted to the Union, when Michigan became the 26th State on January 26, 1837.[4]

About a dozen people are known to have been executed from 1683 to 1836. The area that is now Michigan was part of colonial New France from 1612 (first permanent settlement, Sault Sainte Marie, 1668) to 1763, when the Treaty of Paris transferred New France to Great Britain. It was part of British Indian Territory, 1763 to 1774 when it became part of the Province of Quebec. The Treaty of Paris, 1783 legally transferred the area to the new United States of America but Lower Michigan remained under British control until 1796, and Upper Michigan until 1818 (transferred pursuant to the Treaty of Ghent of 1814). In this early period, there were a number of cases where persons who had committed a capital crime in Detroit were transported to Montreal for trial and execution.

The first person known to be executed in Michigan was an Aboriginal North American named Folle-Avoine. The first person executed under US Jurisdiction was a Native American named Buhnah. Two women were executed in Michigan, both during the British colonial period – an unnamed Native American slave (owned by a man named Clapham) in 1763, and a black slave named Ann Wyley in 1777, both when Michigan was under British jurisdiction.[5] By race, seven of 15 were Native Americans; seven were European-Americans; and one was an African-American.[6]

The 1830 hanging of a white tavern keeper, Stephen Gifford Simmons, who had in drunken fit killed his wife, generated more popular opposition to the death penalty than the prior hanging of Native Americans.[7] Consequently, Simmons' was the last execution under Michigan law.[8][9]

Although Michigan had outlawed the death penalty after becoming a state, the United States Government hanged Anthony Chebatoris at the Federal Correctional Institution, Milan near Milan, Michigan in 1938, for a murder he had committed while robbing a federal bank in Midland.[10]

The death penalty has been unconstitutional in Michigan since the 1963 constitution became effective in 1964.[11]

Federal death penalty[edit]

The 2002 conviction of Marvin Gabrion received national attention when he was sentenced to death for the murder of Rachel Timmerman in Newaygo County, Michigan. Gabrion is also suspected of four other killings but was never tried for them, including the murder of Rachel Timmerman's 11-month-old daughter Shannon Verhage.

Prosecutors were able to use the dual sovereignty doctrine to seek a death sentence because the murder took place on federal land.[12] Gabrion was the first person in the United States to receive the federal death penalty for a crime committed in a non-death penalty state since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, as well as the first person to be sentenced to death in the state of Michigan since 1937.[13] The sentence was overturned in 2013 by a panel of the Sixth Circuit, but was later reinstated 12–4 by the full court sitting en banc.[14][15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tirschwell, Eric A. and Theodore Hertzberg (both of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP). "Politics and Prosecutions: A Historical Perspective on Shifting Federal Standards for Pursuing the Death Penalty in non-Death Penalty States." Journal of Constitutional Law. October 2009. Volume 12 Issue 1. pp. 57–98. CITED: p. 61.
  2. ^ "History of the Death Penalty – Faith in Action – Working to Abolish the Death Penalty". Archived from the original on 2010-03-06. Retrieved 2007-09-08.
  3. ^ See Caitlin pp. 420–422
  4. ^ "Regional Studies The Midwest". Archived from the original on 2007-09-20. Retrieved 2007-08-16.
  5. ^ See Burton pp. 193–195 for an account of Contincineau's trial. The presiding judge Philip Dejean was subsequently indicted for the murder of Contincineau. According to the account in Burton, Contincineau's accomplice, the slave woman Ann Wyley, was freed by Dejean on the condition that she act as executioner on Contincineau. Caitlin p. 68 notes that Dejean later went back on his offer and had Wiley hanged.
  6. ^ Executions is the U.S. 1608-2002: The ESPY File, "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2005-09-10. Retrieved 2005-12-01.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^ America Without the Death Penalty: States Leading the Way John F. Galliher, Larry W. Koch, David Patrick Keys –1555536395 2005 Page 12 "The execution of Stephen Simmons generated considerably more outrage in Michigan than did the execution of the two Native Americans who preceded him to the gallows."
  8. ^ Richard Adler Cholera in Detroit: A History 2013 – Page 93 "Knapp was an unwilling participant in what had been the last execution under Michigan law. Stephen Simmons, a local tavern keeper, was convicted in 1830 of the murder of his wife, and was sentenced to be hanged. Knapp, as the sheriff, ..."
  9. ^ Carr, Tom (2016). Blood on the Mitten (1st ed.). Chandler Lake Books / Mission Point Press. pp. 10–11. ISBN 9781943338078.
  10. ^ Veselenak, Michigan History Magazine, May 1998
  11. ^ "Death Penalty – Mich. Comp. Laws IV § 46". Archived from the original on 2010-07-18. Retrieved 2010-05-23.
  12. ^ "Court divided on Marvin Gabrion death penalty appeal". The Grand Rapids Press. March 14, 2008.
  13. ^ "First Federal Death Sentence in Non-death penalty state overturned". Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  14. ^ Agar, John (May 28, 2013). "Marvin Gabrion's death penalty reinstated in 1997 killing of young mother". MLIVE.
  15. ^ Associated Press (May 28, 2013). "Appeals court affirms death sentence for marvin gabrion, convicted of killing Michigan woman in 1997". Holland Sentinel.