GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Marvin Gabrion has spent more than 20 years in federal prison, convicted of the 1997 murder of 19-year-old Rachel Timmerman in Newaygo County’s section of the Manistee National Forest, which is federal land.
He is also believed to be responsible for the death of three others who were set to testify against him on allegations he raped Timmerman and for the disappearance and presumed murder of Timmerman’s 11-month-old daughter, Shannon VerHage.
The recent announcement from U.S. Attorney General William Barr that the federal government is slated to resume executions was met with consternation by civil rights advocates and hope by the father of one of Gabrion’s alleged victims.
“I don’t really go along with the death penalty that much, but I feel but you should pay for what you’ve done, especially something as heinous and horrible as he did,” Shannon’s father, Rick VerHage told 24 Hour News 8.
While Gabrion’s 2002 federal court conviction called for capital punishment, Michigan’s historic opposition to the death penalty has kept him from that fate. Michigan was the first English-speaking Legislature on Earth to abolish the death penalty back in 1846.
“We don’t have the death penalty here by choice. It’s not a matter of defaulting to no death penalty. The state has chosen not to have the death penalty, so as a practical matter, it must impact what’s going on here,” said Scott Graham, one of Gabrion’s appellate attorneys.
Gabrion is in the early stages of a second appeal before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, claiming his constitutional rights were violated.
The courts could hear from the defense and U.S. Attorney’s Office. The case could then go to the U.S. Supreme Court and then Gabrion could possibly request a commutation.
“There is a lengthy multifaceted appeal process in death penalty cases for obvious reasons — we want to make sure we get it as right as possible since there’s so much at stake,” said Tracy Brame, a former federal defender who leads death penalty seminars at Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School, where she’s an associate dean.
“I think it’s going to be at least a couple of years before that particular proceeding runs its course, so I don’t think there will be any immediate impact on Mr. Gabrion,” Graham said, adding that Michigan’s historic opposition to capital punishment should impact the outcome.
But the U.S. Attorney’s decision does not address any of the longstanding concerns about the death penalty, including whether is it effective in deterring crime and fairly applied.
“It seems to be almost an ideological change of position. We’ve dragged these cases on too long, we have this law in the books, it’s time to achieve justice for these families,” Brame said.
She says the U.S. is joining the rest of the civilized world in abolishing the death penalty.
“There are parts of the country where it is still going strong, so I don’t know where it’s going to go nationally,” Brame said. “I think it might depend on who is in the White House.”