CINCINNATI, Aug. 4 (UPI) — A U.S. appeals court overturned the death sentence of a Michigan man convicted of drowning a woman to keep her from pursuing a rape charge against him.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Marvin Gabrion’s lawyers should have been allowed by a U.S. judge to tell jurors Gabrion would have faced life in prison, rather than a death sentence, if the case had been prosecuted in state court rather than federal court.
Michigan doesn’t allow capital punishment, the court noted.
Jurors concluded Gabrion deserved death for killing a 19-year-old woman whose handcuffed and chained body, weighted with cinder blocks, was found in a lake in a national forest in western Michigan.
They also convicted him of killing her infant daughter. The infant’s body has never been found.
“There is no doubt that he murdered her and her infant daughter in June 1997 while awaiting trial for raping her,” the court wrote and the Detroit Free Press cited. “We conclude, however, that the District Court did err … by refusing to allow Gabrion’s counsel to argue for mercy … on the ground that Gabrion could not have received the death penalty if the body had been found 227 feet away, outside the [Manistee] National Forest.”
U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell had barred Gabrion’s lawyers from reminding jurors during the sentencing phase about the federal and state law distinction.
Knowing the distinction may not have changed the death verdict, but it would have been an argument for the jury to consider, the court said.
Chief Judge Alice Batchelder dissented, arguing there are many arguments beyond the scope of the case that the jury could have considered.
“The pope condemns the death penalty — is that a mitigating factor to be argued to the sentencing jury?” her dissent said.
Gabrion’s case marked the first time the federal death penalty was imposed in Michigan since 1937. Since then, at least five others have faced the death penalty, but none has received it.