“Michigan needs the death penalty.”
This is among the most typical of comments whenever the crime of murder leads to what, for many, is the unsatisfying conclusion of Michigan’s ultimate punishment: life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But for 165 years, capital punishment has not been an option for state juries. This is despite some unsuccessful efforts to make it so that have been stopped by voters or stalled out in legislatures, whether they be dominated by Republicans or Democrats.
“Support for capital punishment is a mile wide, but only an inch deep,” said former state Sen. William VanRegenmorter, R-Hudsonville, after a try to get the death penalty enacted in Michigan sputtered out in the 1980s.
As far back as Michigan’s first settling as a territory in 1805, the use of the death penalty was sparse. By most tallies, less than a half dozen people, many of whom were American Indians, were sentenced to capital punishment. It appears that all but 2 death penalty cases in Michigan were also carried out by the federal, not state, authorities.
But the final act for Michigan’s death penalty came in 1830.
According to accounts from historians and newspapers, 50-year-old Stephen Simmons – the keeper of an inn along the Chicago Road in Detroit – came home drunk. As was his reported tradition, Simmons woke up us his wife, Levana, and demanded she join in with the imbibing.
When she refused, Simmons flew into a rage witnessed by his children and punched his wife in the stomach. She would die as a likely result of the blow. A typically hasty trial commenced, and the jury found Simmons guilty.
The trial offered the testimony of Simmons’ daughters who testified of their father’s drunken rampages, but offered little in the form of premeditation that is required for first-degree murder convictions.
The judge sentenced him to death, and within days, a gallows was set up near Farmer Street at Gratiot Avenue, complete with gallery seating, areas for venders and a band to play.
Wayne County Sheriff Thomas Knapp refused to carry out the execution, so territorial Governor Lewis Cass named political activist, military leader and hotel builder Benjamin “Uncle Ben” Woodworth as temporary sheriff to carry out the act.
As people settled in for the main event, Woodworth asked Simmons if he had any final words. Simmons responded with a hymn:
“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 can't surpass the power and glory of Thy grace, great God. Thy nature hath no bound, so let Thy pardoning love be found.”
Swirling in the public consciousness at the same time was the tale of Detroiter Patrick Fitzpatrick, put to death across the river In Windsor for the death and rape of an innkeeper’s daughter. By 1835, another man made a deathbed confession to the crime.
Michigan was a Union state by 1847, and it was then that the legislature abolished the death penalty. That abolition was upheld by a bi-partisan effort in 1963 when the Michigan Constitution was ratified.
David Chardvoyane, a professor at the law schools of Wayne State University and University of Detroit Mercy, is an expert and author of “A Hanging in Detroit: Stephen Gifford Simmons” as well as a new book on the history of the Detroit Federal Court covering eastern Michigan.
He says despite one federal execution committed near Midland in the 1930s, Michigan has a New England and Dutch Protestant abhorrence of the death penalty that came to Michigan with many of its settlers.
He said in states where the death penalty is reinstated – like New York and Illinois – it is almost never applied. And in death penalty states like Texas, where more than a dozen people are executed annually, the idea that capital punishment acts as a deterrent is not generally embraced, but rather is it is as “an eye for an eye.”
“The idea of the death penalty as revenge does not appeal to many in the Northern States,” Chardvoyane said.
The state’s long tradition of anti-execution was even given a nod by the U.S. Court of Appeals in overturning the death sentence against Marvin Gabrion for the 1997 murder of Rachel Timmerman near Manistee National Forest in Newaygo County.
(source: Grand Rapids Press)