In a time when capital punishment was the norm in America, Michigan's legislators made a bold, and historical decision. On March 1, 1847, the state became the first in the English-speaking world to outlaw the death penalty for murder and lesser crimes.

Related: Unsolved Murders in Michigan's Capitol: Lansing Cold Case Files

Before the historic decision, the last execution under Michigan law was carried out at the Wayne County Jail near Farmer Street and Gratiot Avenue in Detroit. The date was September 24, 1830, when Michigan was still a U.S. territory.

Michigan's Last Execution: Historical Shift From Death to Life

Stephen Gifford Simmons, a tavern keeper whose drunken rampage had caused the death of his wife, Levana, following a swift trial and a single day of testimony in the territory capitol of Detroit, was sentenced to death.

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Simmon's trial took place only six weeks after the murder, and since the three circuit court judges assigned to the trial also sat on the territory's Supreme Court, an appeal was useless. Sheriff Thomas Knapp refused to take part in the execution due to religious beliefs and resigned.

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Predating Michigan's last execution was the hanging of Detroiter Patrick Fitzpatrick in Ontario, Canada. Fitzpatrick had been convicted of raping the daughter of an innkeeper but, in 1835, a man confessed to her rape on his deathbed. The Simmons' and Fitzpatrick's cases seemingly weighed heavily upon Michigan legislators' minds.

Michigan's Last Execution: State That Made Death Penalty History

By 1837, after Michigan had become a state, the young legislature made partial reform by splitting murder into first and second-degree crimes, allowing capital punishment only for first-degree murder. The state's death penalty met its demise in 1846, according to the State Bar of Michigan:

...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.

In 1962, Michigan created a constitutional ban on the death penalty, making the state the English-speaking world's trailblazer in taking a stance against capital punishment. Criminals convicted of first-degree murder in Michigan no longer face the end of life. Instead, they now must endure a life spent in prison.

Lansing, Michigan Open Cold Case Files

Gallery Credit: Scott Clow

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