First Federal Death Sentence in Non-Death Penalty State Overturned

On August 3 the U.S. Court of the Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned the federal death sentence of Marvin Gabrion, who was convicted of a 1997 murder in a National Forest in Michigan.  Gabrion was the first defendant in the country to receive the federal death penalty for a crime committed in a non-death penalty state since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988.  All three members of the judicial panel upheld Gabriion's murder conviction, but two judges called for another sentencing trial because Gabrion's defense team was barred from telling jurors that he would not have faced the death penalty if he had been prosecuted in state court because Michigan does not allow capital punishment. The court held that such information could have served as a mitigating factor, perhaps convincing some jurors not to vote for death.  In deciding Gabrion's direct appeal, the court wrote, "The case was not brought to serve a special national interest like treason or terrorism different from the normal state interest in punishing murder. The jury should be given the opportunity to consider whether one or more of them would choose a life sentence rather than the death penalty when the same jury considering the same defendant's proper punishment for the same crime but prosecuted in Michigan state court could not impose the death penalty."  The federal government had jurisdiction over the crime because the victim's body was found in a portion of a lake in Manistee National Forest that is federal property.  Gabrion was the first person to receive a death sentence in Michigan since 1937.

(E. White, "Appeals court overturns rare Michigan death sentence," Chicago Tribune, August 3, 2011).  The court also concluded that the jury should have been required to decide that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors by a standard of beyond a reasonable doubt in order to sentence Gabrion to death. The dissenting judge would have upheld both the sentence and the conviction, believing that the majority was stretching the notion of what is a mitigating factor too far.  Michigan has not had the death penalty for over 160 years. See Federal Death Penalty and Sentencing.