Friday, August 16, 2013

Felony Friday: An execution in Michigan

The streets of downtown Midland were a blur of chaos and fear the morning of September 29, 1937. Shortly before noon, two armed men had tried to rob the Chemical State Savings Bank, whose employees were processing payroll money from the Dow Corporation, one of the city's major employers. Though the men fled with no cash, they left two injured bank employees in their wake. Now, as the would-be robbers escaped in their car, bullets flew at them from an unknown location. One of the bullets hit the driver, who crashed his car into a parked vehicle. As both men stumbled from the wreckage, they set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the deaths of three people: two men who died from injuries they received that day, and a third man who, less than a year later, became the first and only person executed in Michigan since the state abolished the death penalty in 1846.

That person was Anthony "Tony" Chebatoris, a career criminal with a lengthy list of offenses. Chebatoris, originally from Poland, now lived in Detroit, and had served time in prison for bank robbery. He was also wanted in other states for crimes including robbery and assault.

Tony Chebatoris

Chebatoris had previously been incarcerated at the state prison in Jackson. It was there that he met Jack Gracy, another bank robber who, like Chebatoris, had spent much of his life behind bars. (A quick note: During my research for this post, I found that "Gracy" was spelled inconsistently among sources, some of which cited the name as "Gracey." I went with the "Gracy" spelling because it's the version that most sources used.) Prison life did nothing to rehabilitate the pair, and when Chebatoris and Gracy gained their freedom, they decided to rob the Chemical State Savings Bank, setting their plan in motion by arming themselves and driving north to Midland from Hamtramck that fateful September morning.

The plan was a risky one, and not just because Chebatoris and Gracy might get caught and imprisoned again. The country was in the midst of the Great Depression, and many Americans had turned to bank robbery as a means of keeping themselves afloat. To thwart future crimes, Congress passed the National Bank Robbery Act of 1934, which made the robbery of certain banks a federal offense, not a state one. This meant that robbers would face stiffer penalties and would serve their time in federal institutions, not state prisons. The act also stated that anyone who killed an innocent person in the course of committing a bank robbery would be eligible for the death penalty. Though Michigan had outlawed capital punishment nearly 100 years before (and was, in fact, the first English-speaking government in the world to do so), the federal legislation took precedence, so the lives of Michigan bank robbers who killed bystanders would no longer be protected by state law.

Whether this fact was on Chebatoris's and Gracy's minds as they approached the Chemical State Savings Bank is unknown, but in any event, the pair entered the building with weapons--a sawed-off shotgun for Gracy, a revolver for Chebatoris--hidden under their clothing. Gracy approached the bank's president, Clarence Macomber, and stuck the shotgun in his side. Startled, Macomber fought Gracy for control of the weapon. Any thought that Chebatoris and Gracy would escape without violence disappeared as Chebatoris shot Macomber in the shoulder, then shot cashier Paul Bywater in the stomach when the latter man rushed to help his ailing boss. Realizing their plan had gone horribly awry, Chebatoris and Gracy fled the bank, rushed to their getaway vehicle, and tore away from the scene of the crime.

Their actions had not gone unnoticed by bystanders. Frank Hardy, a dentist with an office on the bank building's second floor, saw the vehicle speeding away, grabbed a deer rifle he kept on hand to thwart robbers, and started shooting. A bullet from Hardy's gun hit Chebatoris, the vehicle's driver. After Chebatoris crashed the car, he and Gracy got out, wildly searching for the mystery gunman. Chebatoris's eyes fell on Henry Porter, a Bay City truck driver whose uniform, to Chebatoris, looked like it belonged to a cop. Chebatoris shot Porter, then, with Gracy, tried to hijack a few vehicles in an increasingly desperate bid to escape. Hardy, still hidden from the criminals' view, killed Gracy with a shot to the head, and Sheriff Ira Smith apprehended Chebatoris moments later.

The gunfire was over, but the drama had only just begun. Macomber and Bywater, the bank president and cashier, eventually recovered from their wounds, but truck driver Porter died from his injuries twelve days after receiving them. Porter's death meant that Chebatoris would not only face charges in the Bay City federal court for attempted bank robbery, but that he would also be eligible for the death penalty. Jury members needed only one vote to convict Chebatoris, but required seven votes before they agreed that death was an appropriate punishment for his crimes.

Appalled at the thought that an execution would take place in Michigan, Governor Frank Murphy pleaded with the trial judge to commute Chebatoris's sentence to life in prison. When that effort failed, Murphy tried another tack, insisting that the execution should occur in another state. He took his case all the way to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but Murphy's argument fell on deaf ears. So it was that in the early morning hours of July 8, 1938, Chebatoris found himself facing the hangman's noose at the Federal Correctional Institution in Milan. He was pronounced dead at 5:21 a.m, and to this day, remains the only person legally executed in the state of Michigan.

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