Lansing lawyer lays out case for ending capital punishment

This past week a Michigan man, Ledura Watkins, after spending 41 years in prison for murder, became a free man after the Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School Innocence Project successfully made a case that the evidence used to convict him was bogus science. For most of the readers of the incredible story, it was astonishing news. But for Lansing lawyer Eugene G. Wanger, 84, it was another affirmation of Michigan’s stance on capital punishment, which is prohibited in the state.

“In fact, in 1846, Michigan was the first English speaking government in the world to ban capital punishment,” said Wanger, who is considered one of the nation’s leading experts on capital punishment.

He attributes that action to the makeup of the legislature at the time.

“Most were from New York and New England and didn’t support capital punishment,” he said.

That attitude was also supported by the large number of immigrants in Michigan from Eastern European countries who, according to Wanger, “had fled savage and cruel criminal justice systems.”

The action was hailed by East Coast newspapers with headlines like “The sun has risen in the West,” Wanger said.

As a young law student at the University of Michigan in the 1950s, Wanger squirreled away an article torn from a law journal that listed a series of arguments against capital punishment. He knew that capital punishment was already outlawed in Michigan, but he liked the article’s precise arguments. That purloined article would serve him well when, in 1961, he became the youngest Republican delegate to the Michigan Constitutional Convention.

When it was discovered that the Democrats were outpacing Republicans in writing delegate proposals for consideration, Wanger went on a tear, drafting numerous proposals. One of them was for a constitutional provision to prohibit the death penalty in Michigan. Wanger believed that changes in that prohibition would be harder to make if it was written into the Constitution.

“I thought Michigan’s prohibition should go into the Constitution,” he said. “That way, we wouldn’t have to worry about a heinous murder turning the tide.”

As the proposal worked its way through the convention, Wanger said, there was no opposition. When the revised Constitution was ratified in 1963, Michigan became the first — and still the only — state to have the prohibition in a state constitution.

Following his stint as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Wanger set out to become an expert on the issues surrounding capital punishment.

He scoured book shops looking for material pertinent to the issue, and he was seen going booth to booth at every Mid-Michigan Antiquarian Book Show. At some shows, he even wore a sign around his neck with the words “Capital Punishment?” written on it so that people would know what he was looking for.

Over his lifetime, he has collected an astounding number of books, articles, pamphlets and other ephemera relating to capital punishment. The collection now resides at the University at Albany in New York.

As a supplement to the collection, Wanger recently wrote a book, “Fighting the Death Penalty: A Fifty-Year Journey of Argument and Persuasion,” which was published by Michigan State University Press and the Michigan Committee Against Capital Punishment.

Wanger and local attorney James Neal will have a discussion on the new book 7 p.m. June 29 at the Library of Michigan in an event sponsored by the Historical Society of Greater Lansing. The event is free and open to the public.

Wanger hopes that the book, along with the work of activists and lawyers, can help end capital punishment in the U.S. A 2016 poll shows that 61 percent of Americans still are in favor of the death penalty. At the end of 2016, 31 states still had the death penalty, and there were nearly 3,000 inmates on death row, including more than 700 in California.

The preferred method of execution is by lethal injection, which has come under greater scrutiny in recent years for its lack of precision and several botched executions. Some states still allow inmates to choose alternate means of deaths, such as hanging or firing squad.

Wanger said the goal of the book was to present a series of arguments against capital punishment. In the book, he examines the marginal cost of prohibiting capital punishment, since opponents often point to the cost of keeping someone in prison for life. He said they fail to take into account the costs of building an execution unit in prison and maintaining specially trained staff. He also points out that the cost of death row litigation is costly and divisive.

Wanger also emphasizes that the death penalty may end up with the execution of an innocent person.

“Government is not all that efficient at what it does, and it can make quite a few mistakes,” he said.

The book also considers how race affects the application of capital punishment and how one’s religious beliefs influence the argument.

“It comes down to respect for life,” Wanger said. “A great majority of religious denominations have come out against (capital punishment).”

Fighting the Death Penalty 7 p.m. Thursday, June 29 FREE Library of Michigan 702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing (517) 282-0671, lansinghistory.org