In 1927 Public Act 175 changed the Michigan criminal code mandating life-terms for habitual felons. Four felony convictions constituted this habitual felon status. During Prohibition, possession of as little as a pint of alcohol was a felony in Michigan.
On October 5, 1928, liquor enforcement officers Frank Eastman and William Knapp of the Lansing Police Department arrested Etta Mae Miller, charging her with the sale two pints of moonshine whiskey two days earlier. The 48-year-old had been a mother of 10; four children survived at her arrest. Her youngest at the time was 13. Ettaâ€™s husband Alvin was already serving a non-life prison sentence for alcohol possession.
That New Yearâ€™s Eve, it took the jury less than two hours of deliberation to convict her. Some reports claim a decision was made in less than 15 minutes, and they lingered delivering the verdict. This was her fourth offense. She was sentenced to life in prison at the Detroit House of Corrections. That same day, the same court ordered a man who pled guilty of manslaughter to pay a $400 fine and be freed. The case gained international attention as Etta was the first woman sentenced to life for liquor law violations. The press latched onto references of the â€œLife for a Pintâ€ law.
Despite public outcry there were others who did not believe the penance harsh enough. According to Time Magazine, the General Secretary of the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals Dr. Clarence True Wilson said:
“Our only regret is that the woman was not sentenced to life imprisonment before her ten children were born. When one has violated the Constitution four times, he or she is proved to be an habitual criminal and should be segregated from society to prevent the production of subnormal offsprings.”
Two prosecution witnesses, the men who allegedly bought the whiskey, were later both given six-month sentences for perjury in the case. Ettaâ€™s sentence was reduced by Governor Fred Green, who was not in favor of the draconian punishments for minor liquor offenses. The conviction was eventually reversed by the Michigan Supreme Court, and Etta was released from prison.
In late 1940, the-then 60-year-old was again arrested for illegal sale of alcohol and for running a â€œhouse of ill fame.” Her daughter, Elvira Mitchell, was also arrested charged with being a â€œdisorderly person.â€
LDP investigator Frank Potts testified Miller sold him a quart of homemade wine for 60 cents. The â€œmarkedâ€ dollar bill used to purchase the wine was not found when the home was raided. The house where the alleged crimes took place still stands at 1007 Lathrop.
Time Magazine 1/14/1929
Michigan Public Act 175 of 1927
Lansing Journal Newspaper 12/12/1928
Lansing Journal Newspaper 12/13/1928
Lansing Journal Newspaper 1/16/1929
Lansing Journal Newspaper 12/14/1940