Midland, MI

The historic fight to preserve Michigan law

Author Ed Anderson
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Tony Chebatoris was at the center of a historic fight between Michigan and the federal government.Photo byFBI

Anthony Chebatoris and his accomplice Jack Gracey knew the Chemical Bank in Midland, Michigan, would be flush with cash from the Dow Chemical payroll. Each had been in and out of jail for most of their lives. They figured it wouldn't hurt to try and take some of that money for themselves.

On September 29, 1937, they put their plan into action. Gracey walked into the bank and Chebatoris kept watch outside.

Gracey walked up to the bank's president, Clarence Macomber, and demanded money. Despite being put on the spot and threatened, Macomber was not about to allow his bank to be robbed. He pushed the robber towards the door.

According to WDIV, Chebatoris shot the bank president in the shoulder. A cashier heard the commotion and came to see what happened, he was also shot. Both men survived.

Dr. Frank Hardy, a dentist whose office was near the bank, heard what was going on. He began firing his own weapon, hitting both of the robbers. The getaway car hit a parked car.

The robbers needed to figure out another way to escape. By this time, they were certain that the cops were called. A man, Henry J. Porter, stood in the same area. They mistook him for law enforcement and killed him.

Shortly after Porter lost his life, Hardy took Gracey's, The Detroit Free Press reports.

His cohort took off but was apprehended shortly thereafter. Chebatoris' trial would become a controversy between the state and federal governments.

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Chebatoris' trial ignited a fierce debate in MichiganPhoto byMuseums of History New South WalesonUnsplash

Trial Facts

Chebatoris pleaded guilty to the first set of charges that were handed down. Those were connected to the attempted robbery of the bank. But when Porter died, murder charges followed.

During this time, there was an increase in bank robberies. Most famously, John Dillinger was known for pulling off heists and disappearing before law enforcement could find him. In response, Congress passed laws, known as the Federal Bank Robbery Act of 1934, making the acts federal crimes, Sycarus University reported.

They included someone being killed as a result of a robbery as part of the law.

The defendant said nothing when presented with the new charges. Chebatoris was the first person tried under the new law.

It was the opening salvo in a debate between Michigan and the federal government. According to WRKR, the U.S. attorney arguing the case for the prosecution warned that the death penalty was on the table. And the state law abolishing it would not stand.

On October 28, 1937, a jury convicted him. When he was taken back to his cell that night, Cherbatoris tried to unalive himself. He was saved by officials at the jail and taken to the hospital.

To many people's surprise, Chebatoris did not appeal his conviction. When asked about his decision, he said: "Why appeal? I'm only half a man now. The government might as well finish me off."

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Michigan's governor fought against the execution happening in he state, citing the state's lawPhoto byShelagh MurphyonUnsplash

Michigan vs. Federal

In 1937, Congress passed another law. This one required that a defendant be executed in the state where the crime took place. Chebatoris committed the crime in Michigan, so the federal government sought to carry out his punishment within the state.

However, Governor Frank Murphy argued that the law said that only applied to states where capital punishment was allowed. Michigan abolished it in 1847, the State of Michigan Bar says. Therefore, the feds needed to move Chebatoris to another location before following through on the punishment.

Bolstering his efforts was the fact that the prison officials in Illinois offered to let the execution happen in their state. The U.S. attorney said that he would recommend the move or offer to have it take place in Indiana.

Everyone appeared to be on the same side.

That is until it was discovered that Michigan had a little-known law. It allowed for the death penalty in a case of treason against the state, The Midland Daily News reported. The U.S. attorney began arguing that satisfied the need for the law to allow capital punishment.

Murphy continued to argue that was not the case. He said that there was no doubt about Cherbatoris' guilt, but did not want the execution to happen in Michigan. Multiple judges and lawyers told him that he didn't have the jurisdiction to stop it once the treason law was unearthed.

In a last-ditch effort, the governor reached out to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to commute the sentence, The Midland Daily News reported. It did no good, as the President came to the conclusion that there was no justification for such a move.

Cherbatoris was executed in Milan, Michigan on July 8, 1938. It was the first and last time that the death penalty was carried out within the state's borders.

Murphy called it "a blot on Michigan's civilized record."


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Ed Anderson is a true crime and gossip writer from Detroit, Michigan. Ed is the author of several true crime books, most recently Financing Doubt.

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