Michigan’s last execution 84 years ago: That man’s story and a look at the death penalty today

Michigan abolished death penalty in 1846

Anthony Chebatoris (Michigan State Archives)

The last person to face the death penalty in Michigan was executed 84 years ago by the federal government.

The 1938 execution was the first since Michigan abolished the death penalty nearly 100 years prior. Now, in 2022, there is a Michigan man on death row for a crime committed on federal property.

In this article, we have put together information on the case of the 1938 execution as well as information about the death penalty in Michigan today.

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

Tony Chebatoris: The last man to be executed in Michigan

Tony Chebatoris was first convicted on July 20, 1920, for armed robbery of a Packard cashier. Sentenced to 20 years, he was let out on parole after only six and a half years.

Months after being released from prison, he was arrested in Louisville, Kentucky for armed robbery and stealing an automobile, violating the Dyer Act.

The Dyer Act, also known as the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, made stealing a vehicle a federal crime. It was enacted in 1919 with the goal of preventing organized thieves from trafficking stolen vehicles across state lines.

Chebatoris was re-imprisoned at Jackson State Prison to serve his full sentence for the armed robbery.

Jack Gracey and the bank robbery

During his time at Jackson State Prison, Chebatoris befriended fellow inmate Jack Gracey. The two conspired to escape and were both consequently transferred to Marquette Branch Prison in the Upper Peninsula.

Chebatoris was released from prison in December 1935. After more legal trouble in Pennsylvania, Tony moved back to Detroit in 1937. It was then that he and Jack Gracey became reacquainted and began formulating plans for a bank robbery.

On September 29, 1937, Chebatoris and Gracey attempted to rob the Chemical State Savings Bank in Downtown Midland, Michigan.

Gracey entered the bank at 11:30 a.m. with a sawed-off shotgun while Chebatoris guarded the door with a revolver. Gracey approached the 65-year-old bank president, Clarence Macomber, and shoved the shotgun into his ribs.

Chebatoris shot Macomber in the shoulder after he and Gracey struggled over the shotgun. Paul Bywater, the bank’s cashier, was shot in the back above the hip by Chebatoris. Both survived their gunshot injuries.

The men decided to abort their robbery plan and fled the bank. Chebatoris drove the getaway car.

This is where it gets crazy.

Dr. Frank Hardy, whose dental practice was adjacent to the bank building, had heard the gunshots. He used a hunting rifle to fire at the getaway car from his office window and struck Chebatoris’ arm and Gracey’s leg. This caused Chebatoris to lose control and crash into a parked car.

Chebatoris and Gracey exited the car, looking for the source of the gunshots. Truck driver Henry Porter, of Bay City, whose uniform could have been confused for a police uniform, was a bystander in the area. Chebatoris shot Porter.

Hardy fired again, hitting Gracey’s elbow. When Gracey tried to commandeer a truck, Hardy shot him in the head from a distance of over 100 yards. Chebatoris was apprehended by a road repairman in Midland County.

FBI agents arrived at the scene shortly after the shootout. It was made clear from the beginning that Chebatoris would be charged with a federal, not a state, offense. He had violated the National Bank Robbery Act, passed in 1934, in response to the increase of bank robberies during the Great Depression.

Through that act, the federal government had jurisdiction over an incident that occurred in a bank that was a member of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or the Federal Reserve System. Chemical State Savings Bank belonged to both.

The National Bank Robbery Act also provided for the death penalty in the event an innocent person was killed.

Trial and execution

There was a three-day trial in Bay City, and the case against Chebatoris was pretty solid.

The jury returned a guilty verdict and imposed the death penalty. He became the first person in the nation to be sentenced to death under the Bank Robbery Act. He was also the first to face death for a crime committed in Michigan in nearly 100 years, and the first-ever to be sentenced to death by a Michigan jury.

The judge gave the official sentence and set the execution date for July 8, 1938. The last execution to take place in Michigan had been in Detroit on Sept. 24, 1830 -- seven years before Michigan became a state.

Two weeks before the scheduled hanging, Michigan governor Frank Murphy pleaded with President Franklin Roosevelt to move the execution to another state. Roosevelt determined the law to be fairly clear and that little could be done to prevent the hanging in Michigan. Even though Frank Sain, the warden of Chicago’s Cook County Jail, had offered one of their electric chairs to carry out the execution.

After refusing a customary last meal and turning away the prison chaplain, execution day was upon Anthony Chebatoris.

On the morning of July 8, 1938, Chebatoris was officially pronounced dead at 5:21. He was one of only 36 people to be executed in the 20th Century by the U.S. government.

Michigan is one of only 23 states without the death penalty.

Michigan man on federal death row

There is only one Michigan man on the list of federal death row prisoners.

In 2002, Marvin Charles Gabrion was convicted of murdering Rachel Timmerman on federal property in Michigan.

Timmerman and her 11-month-old daughter vanished in June 1997. Timmerman’s body was found a month later, on July 5, 1997. Her daughter has never been found.

Gabrion is suspected of, but has not been charged with, killing Timmerman’s daughter and three other people. During the Timmerman murder trial, at least 58 witnesses testified against Gabrion.

Gabrion was sentenced to death. He has continued to appeal that sentence over the years. An execution day has not been set.

Read more: Michigan girl still missing 25 years after mother murdered, found dead in lake; Killer on death row

The federal death penalty today

There have been 50 federal executions carried out since 1927.

There were no executions carried out in the 1970s through the 1990s or in the 2010s.

The Trump administration carried out 13 federal executions -- an unprecedented run that concluded just five days before President Joe Biden was inaugurated.

The Justice Department, under Trump, resumed federal executions in 2020 after a 17-year hiatus. No president in more than 120 years had overseen as many federal executions.

Dustin Higgs was the last person executed by the federal government. He had been convicted of ordering the killings of three women in a Maryland wildlife refuge in 1996 -- a crime he denied doing.

“I’d like to say I am an innocent man. ... I am not responsible for the deaths,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying. “I did not order the murders.”

According to the Associated Press report, the women were shot by another man, who received a life sentence.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are 44 prisoners currently on death row. There are currently no federal executions scheduled, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Biden has previously made statements saying that he is in support of eliminating the death penalty.

Read: More Michigan history coverage

Have something from history you’d like us to cover? Reach out to us at kclarke@wdiv.com and mruss@wdiv.com with your story idea.

About the Authors:

Morgan is a Digital Editor and has been with WDIV since May of this year. She is also studying political science and communications at Wayne State University.

Kayla is a Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit. Before she joined the team in 2018 she worked at WILX in Lansing as a digital producer.