May 4, 1846: Michigan becomes first state to abolish death penalty

The Michigan Capitol Building in Lansing

DETROIT – Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty on this day in 1846. 

Furthermore, when Michigan abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes on May 4, 1846 it wasn't just the first state to do so, "it became the first English-speaking jurisdiction in the world to abolish the death penalty," according to a University of Pennsylvania law article.

Here's an excerpt from "Capital Punishment Abolished -- Advent of the Telegraph," which describes how lawmakers in the relatively young state of Michigan -- it joined the union less than 10 years earlier in 1837 -- came to this decision 171 years ago:

Abolition of the death penalty (in Michigan) came about by indirection. Michigan had adopted many laws of other states, most of them based upon the Common Law of England. They had passed other laws which modified these. Some of the statutes were contradictory because the conflicting laws had not been repealed. The laws were published in the order of their passage, without systematic arrangement, so a lawyer had to comb the entire code and often he was still left in doubt and dependent upon the offhand ruling of a judge. Chief Justice Fletcher revised the Michigan statutes in 1838, but his work was so hastily done that it brought little improvement. 

In 1845 Sanford M. Green, a very able lawyer of Oakland County, was a member of the state senate and he was commissioned to make a thorough revision of the laws of Michigan and to make recommendations to the legislature. When his report was made the legislature made a few changes and adopted the report as a single act, May 18, 1846. In this revised code the penalty for murder was limited to imprisonment at hard labor for life. Immediately there was an outburst of opposition to this reform and it was led by about 50 of the leading citizens of Detroit. They fulminated against it in the press and enlisted the pulpit in their cause. At the request of 41 citizens who signed a formal petition, the Rev. George Duffield of the First Presbyterian Church preached a powerful sermon against abolition of the death penalty as contrary to the laws of God and civilized men. That sermon was printed and circulated all over the state, but it brought no demand for restoration of the death penalty. 

Read more here.

If you have the time, that's a good read which digs into a specific historical time period in Detroit. 

7 executions in Michigan while under US jurisdiction

Before Michigan got rid of the death penalty, seven people were executed in the state while it was under U.S. jurisdiction, beginning in 1819. The final execution in Michigan was the hanging of Anthony Chebatoris in July 8, 1838. Chebatoris' crime was murder. He was the only person to be executed during Michigan's statehood. The other six were executed between 1819 and 1836, when Michigan was still a U.S. territory. Four of those people were Native Americans. 

View the full list of executions in Michigan before and during U.S. jurisdiction here

Other states follow Michigan

The state of Michigan's move to abolish capital punishment was soon followed by Rhode Island in 1852 and Wisconsin in 1853. 

Fast-forward to 2017 and there are now 18 states, and the District of Columbia, without an enforceable death penalty statute:


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Brief death penalty hiatus in US

The U.S. Supreme Court suspended capital punishment across the country from 1972 through 1976 due to the court's decision in U.S. 238 Furman V. Georgia. However, capital punishment resumed in the U.S. in 1977.

From Project Gutenberg

Executions resumed on January 17, 1977, when Gary Gilmore went before a firing squad in Utah. But the pace was quite slow due to the use of litigation tactics which involved filing repeated writs of habeas corpus, which succeeded for many in delaying their actual execution for many years. Although hundreds of individuals were sentenced to death in the United States during the 1970s and early 1980s, only ten people besides Gilmore (who had waived all of his appeal rights) were actually executed prior to 1984.

Recently, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson scheduled eight executions in 11 days, the most in the shortest amount of time since capital punishment returned to the United States in the 1970s. The Supreme Court has taken issue with this.

From April 28: Arkansas executes Kenneth Williams, 4th inmate in 8 days

About the Author:

Dave Bartkowiak Jr. is the digital managing editor for ClickOnDetroit.