U.S. death penalty revival may have implications for Michigan case

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Two days before she was to testify against Marvin Gabrion in 1997 for allegedly raping her, Rachel Timmerman, 19, of Cedar Springs, just north of Grand Rapids, and her 11-month-old daughter, Shannon, were reported missing.

Authorities eventually found Timmerman’s body in the shallows of Oxford Lake, in nearby Newaygo County.

Her mouth was covered with tape. Chains were wrapped around her body and padlocked. Federal prosecutors believe she was alive when someone put her in the water.

Shannon has never been found.

Having obtained a death sentence for Gabrion in 2002 upon his conviction for murdering Timmerman, the federal government may now make him the second person put to death in Michigan since the state became one of the first polities in the western world to ban the death penalty, 172 years ago.

Attorney General William Barr

U.S. Attorney General William Barr this week directed the Bureau of Prisons to adopt an addendum to the protocol for federal executions, to provide for the resumption of capital punishment for the first time since 2003.

Five federal prisoners convicted of murder, and in some cases of torturing and raping the elderly and children, are immediately subject to the action. They do not include Gabrion.

But subsequent executions will be ordered, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

A spokesman declined further comment.

 “Under Administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding,” Barr said, in announcing the new uses of the death penalty.

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

Sentenced to death in 2002 for Timmerman’s murder, Gabrion faced investigators and prosecutors of the U.S. Department of Justice because the murder allegedly occurred in Manistee National Forest.

Prosecutors say the 65-year-old, imprisoned in the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, is also responsible for the deaths of three men who have been missing since about the time of Timmerman’s murder: Robert Allen, a mentally disabled man from Kent County; Wayne Davis, who allegedly witnessed the sexual assault on Timmerman; and John Weeks, who allegedly lured Timmerman to Gabion before her murder.

Gabrion would be the second person executed in Michigan since 1847 when the state became among the first polities in the western world to ban the death penalty.

In 1938, over the objections of state officials and attempts by President Franklin Roosevelt to have the execution moved, the federal government hanged Anthony Chebatoris at the federal prison near Milan.

Chebatoris had robbed a federal bank, the Chemical State Savings Bank in downtown Midland, Michigan, allegedly shooting three men, on September 29, 1937.

One of the shooting victims, Henry Porter, died 12 days later.

Chebatoris was found guilty of murder October 29, 1937, and sentenced to death under the Federal Bank Robbery Act of 1934.

Gov. Frank Murphy tried to get Chebatoris' sentence commuted to life imprisonment. When that failed, Murphy argued the execution should occur in another state.

A former mayor of Detroit, Roosevelt eventually appointed Murphy U.S. Attorney General and then as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Third Judicial Court of the state of Michigan is housed in the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, in Detroit.

The federal death penalty applies in all 50 states, but is rarely used.

About 60 inmates are on death row, most in Terre Haute, Indiana. Among them is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted of the 2016 bombing at the Boston Marathon.

Federal prosecutors are opposed Tsarnaev’s appeal of both is conviction and the sentence in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Boston.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in 1984 that capital punishment violated the state constitution, 37 years after the last executions of two reputed gangsters who murdered a U.S. Marine as part of a gambling racket.

Three federal executions occurred between 1988, when the death penalty was reinstated after the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, and 2003.

The federal death penalty was held unconstitutional following the Supreme Court’s opinion of Furman v. Georgia in 1972 and reinstated for a narrow class of offenses.

The Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 greatly expanded the number of eligible offenses to about 60.