Michigan Legal Milestones
41. First to Abolish the Death Penalty
Complete Text on Milestone Marker
First to Abolish the Death Penalty
On March 1, 1847, after a decade of statehood, Michigan became the first government in the English-speaking world to outlaw capital punishment for murder and lesser crimes. In 1962, under the leadership of young attorney Eugene Wanger, a bipartisan majority of delegates to the state’s constitutional convention voted to add a new constitutional ban stating, “No law shall be enacted providing for the penalty of death.” Michigan is the only state in the Union whose constitution bans the death penalty.
The last execution under Michigan law occurred on September 24, 1830, when Michigan was still a territory. That June, a tavern keeper named Stephen Gifford Simmons fatally beat his wife, Levana, in a drunken rage. His murder trial took place in the territorial capitol in Detroit in July, barely six weeks later. Jury selection took four days, but after only a single day of testimony the jury found Simmons guilty and the court sentenced him to death. The three circuit court judges who presided over the trial were also the judges of the Supreme Court of the territory of Michigan, making an appeal futile. The local sheriff, Thomas Knapp, should have served as executioner but resigned, citing religious beliefs. Simmons’ public hanging took place outside the Wayne County jail near Farmer Street and Gratiot Avenue in Detroit. In 1828, a man named Patrick Fitzpatrick was hanged in Ontario, Canada after being convicted of the rape of an innkeeper’s daughter. In 1835, another man confessed to that rape on his deathbed.
The Simmons and Fitzpatrick executions caused more than a decade of reflection and reform in Michigan. In 1831, Gov. Lewis Cass told the territory’s legislative council, “The period is probably not far distant, when it will be universally acknowledged, that all the just objects of human laws may be fully answered without the infliction of capital punishment.” After Michigan gained statehood in 1837, the legislature enacted a partial reform of the murder law which split murder into first- and second-degree crimes and allowed capital punishment only for first-degree murders. In 1846, state legislators under the leadership of Sen. Flavius Littlejohn of Allegan and Rep. Austin Blair of Jackson, a future governor, approved changing Michigan’s penalty for first-degree murder from death to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Placed by the State Bar of Michigan
and the Detroit Bar Association
November 6, 2018