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Death Sentence Upheld in Marvin Gabrion Case

By Kelly Cheung | Last updated on

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the death sentence of a Michigan man, who was convicted of killing a woman in a national forest in 1997. The body of the Michigan woman was found chained to cinder blocks in a lake in the Manistee National Forest in Newago County.

Michigan does not have the death penalty, but since the murder occurred on federal property, the death penalty applied in this case. The man appealed aruging that Michigan's lack of the death penalty was a mitigating factor in the penalty phase of his case.

Marvin Gabrion was convicted in 2002 for the killing of 19-year-old Rachel Timmerman and possibly her young baby, Shannon Verhage. According to Wood TV 8, authorities believe that he killed her to prevent her from pursuing a rape case against him. He appealed his conviction and death sentence for several reasons.

One of his arguments on appeal was that the murder occurred in Michigan where there is no death penalty so as to mitigate his sentence. The court found that the geographic location is not mitigating evidence under the Eighth Amendment.

The court states that mitigating evidence includes evidence that the sentencer could reasonably find warrants a sentence less than death. However, the court found it is not constitutionally relevant. It states that mitigation evidence is evidence relevant to a “reasoned moral response to the defendant’s background, character, and crime.” Evidence that Michigan lacks the death penalty will not count when it has nothing to do with his background, character or culpability of the crime.

Gabrion attempted to use this argument similarly under the Federal Death Penalty Act. Reviewing the several listed mitigating factors in the federal statute, the court again did not find that the fact that Michigan lacks the death penalty is mitigating evidence.

Gabrion also argued that the jury selection process was biased towards pro-death penalty jurors. The process started with 101 potential jurors and went through the selection process with the usual strikes and challenges. Gabrion still argued the process was tilted from excluding four venirepersons. The four showed hesitancy and doubt as to following jury instructions on death penalty sentencing.

The court, mindful of the trial court’s expertise in the jury-selection process, found that the trial court properly excluded the venirepersons. Disagreeing with Gabrion’s argument, the court stated that jurors are individuals, not commodities. Simply because four anti-death penalty venirepersons were excluded while only three pro-death penalty venirepersons were retained does not show there was a bias in the selection process.

The court analyzed just a few of Gabrion’s arguments before ultimately rejecting all of them. The court found that “after 11 days of testimony and two days of careful deliberation, the 12 jurors who sat on this case decided unanimously that Marvin Gabrion deserved a sentence of death for what he did to Rachel Timmerman.” They had no basis to set their moral judgment aside and so they affirmed the district court.

The dissent disagreed and believed that the location of the murder should have been allowed as a mitigating factor. It believed that the body was so close to being outside of the forest and federal jurisdiction it was only the size of a hockey rink. With that close distance, the dissent find that at least some of the jurors could reasonably decline imposing the death penalty with that information.

According to the Holland Sentinel, this failed appeal was to be Gabrion’s last significant appeal to his conviction and death sentence.

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