Voices: Eugene G. Wanger


The State of Michigan is the only state to have a death penalty ban in its constitution. That ban was enshrined 116 years after the state became the first English-speaking government to abolish capital punishment for murder and lesser crimes in 1846. The person responsible for making it part of the constitution? Eugene Wanger, author of Fighting the Death Penalty: A Fifty-Year Journey of Argument and Persuasion. The result is that Michigan, as Wanger proudly states, has “been longer without the death penalty for murder and lesser crimes than any other government on earth.”

Wanger’s 50-plus years’ crusade against the death penalty began in 1962 when, as a 28-year-old attorney, he attended Michigan’s Constitutional Convention as a delegate. The state’s constitution hadn’t been rewritten since the turn of the century, and Wanger submitted a number of bills “to show we were keeping up to date.” One of them proposed enshrining the state’s existing ban on the death penalty into the constitution. It passed the Legislative Powers Committee by a unanimous vote, and went on to pass into law with only three no votes. “Almost everybody recognized it was a good idea,” says Wanger.

That it should have passed so easily and so quickly is hard to believe today. But what’s even more surprising was that it was passed by a convention whose body was two-thirds Republican and that Wanger himself is a Republican. “All I can say is that it seemed to me then, and now, that there are very strong conservative arguments for being against the death penalty,” he says. “It doesn’t really fit on the conservative-liberal spectrum. Any thoughtful conservative would see that there are serious defects with capital punishment.”

In 1976, Wanger wrote “Why We Should Reject Capital Punishment” to counter a growing movement to change the constitution and bring back the death penalty to Michigan. His 12-page article explained his five main reasons for opposing the death penalty:

1. There is hope that even the worst killer can be reformed.
2. There is no evidence that capital punishment deters potential murderers better than life imprisonment.
3. There is no correlation between the ups and downs of the homicide rate and the presence or absence of the death penalty.
4. The death penalty brings with it a number of severe utilitarian evils, i.e., it degrades the administration of justice, it is inflicted discriminatorily against nonwhites, it obstructs the certainty and swiftness of conviction and punishment, and it is occasionally exercised against innocent persons.
5. There is no difference between retribution and revenge where the death penalty is concerned.

He wrote a more detailed analysis in the 90s, adding additional arguments, including the “terribly great financial cost of the death penalty in comparison to a life without parole sentence,” and the risk of executing an innocent person. “Government is not very good at doing things,” he says. “It’s not very efficient, and it makes mistakes. And the worst mistake you can make is to convict and execute an innocent citizen. And we know that has happened.”

Wanger, now 84 and retired, was not a criminal lawyer; he specialized in municipal and real estate law. ”We don’t have a death penalty in Michigan, so it wasn’t as if I was being called on to defend capital cases,” he says. “In a strange way, that was an advantage to me, because if I was was actually representing somebody in a capital case, it would be emotionally exhausting. Because I didn’t have that kind of emotional involvement, I think it’s one of the reasons that I’ve been able to keep going so long.”

And he is still going. A lifelong scholar of capital punishment in the U.S., he had the largest private collection on that subject in the country. He recently donated the entire collection — 147 boxes — to the University of Albany’s National Death Penalty Archive, which describes it as “a wide range of materials on the death penalty documenting its history, efforts to abolish or reinstate the practice, its psychological impact, compatibility on religious, moral, or ethical grounds, and its operation.”

His book, Fighting the Death Penalty, was named one of the American Library Association’s Outstanding Academic Titles in January, which is awarded annually to books for their “excellence in scholarship and presentation, the significance of their contribution to the field, and their value as important — and often first — treatment of their subject.”

Wanger has been co-chair of the Michigan Committee Against Capital Punishment (which he co-founded) since 1972, an organization he says functions mainly as a resource right now. “Our campaign here is reactive. We produce information as we go along, but don’t really go in with a full-court press except when there’s a threat and the other side looks they’re going to step up their efforts [to bring back the death penalty],” Wanger says.

When asked if he could be called the “Father of Abolition” in Michigan, Wanger demurs. “Oh my no,” he says. “We had abolition in 1846, which was a major thing in American history. I guess you could say I’m the author of the prohibition of the death penalty in our constitution. I actually did write it personally.”

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