"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The day Michigan became 1st state to ban death penalty

On this date 169 years ago, Michigan lawmakers voted to put down the death penalty, becoming the first state to ban capital punishment -- indeed, it was the first English-speaking government in the world to outlaw executions.

On May 18, 1846, the Legislature passed an act banning capital punishment, setting the maximum penalty for murder in Michigan at "solitary confinement at hard labor ... for life." Yet many of those serving that sentence went insane in solitary, leading to a new law in 1861 that gave greater leeway in sentencing murderers.

So who was the last person executed in Michigan? Well, not counting federal executions, that would be on Sept. 24, 1830, when Michigan was still a territory. Detroit was a dusty town of only about 2,200 people. The killer was Stephen Simmons, a tavern keeper who had been convicted of murdering his wife during a drunken quarrel. He was sentenced to die.

Within days, gallows were erected not far from Campus Martius, near Farmer Street and Gratiot, by the downtown library and the Compuware Building. There was a viewing section for the execution, a stage for a band and even a concession area. Detroit, it seemed, was throwing a party for the occasion.

As Simmons stood on the gallows, he was asked whether he had any final words. Instead of speaking, or so the story goes, he sang "Show Pity, Lord, O Lord, Forgive":

"Show pity Lord, O Lord forgive/Let a repenting rebel live.

"Are not thy mercies full and free?/May not a sinner trust in thee?

"My crimes are great, but cannot surpass/The power and glory of thy grace.

"Great God thy nature hath no bounds/So let thy pardoning love be found."

Whether moved by the hymn, the distaste for the spectacle that accompanied the hanging, or the sight of him swinging from the noose, a big push soon began in the territory to do away with capital punishment. Religious leaders in Detroit decried executions as being un-Christian. Newspapers sounded off on the barbarism. Then, a few years later, it was learned that a Detroit man had been executed in Windsor for a crime he didn't commit. Another man confessed to the crime after the innocent man had been put to death.

All of this helped lead the Legislature to pass the law outlawing capital punishment in the newly minted state. The law took effect March 1, 1847, 10 years after Michigan had joined the union.

In 1881, a movement to reinstate the death penalty grew. That June, abolitionist Sojourner Truth, who lived in Battle Creek, spoke to the Legislature: "It shocked me worse than slavery. I've heard that you are going to have hanging again in this state ... Where is the man or woman who can sanction such a thing as that? We are the makers of murderers if we do it."

The last person executed in Michigan under the federal death penalty was Anthony Chebatoris, who was hanged July 8, 1938, at the federal prison in Milan after he was convicted of killing a bystander during a bank robbery in Midland.

Source: Detroit Free Press, Dan Austin, Zlati Meyer, May 4, 2015. 

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