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A federal appeals court on Wednesday overturned a death sentence for a western Michigan man who was convicted of drowning a young woman in a remote lake to prevent her from pursuing a rape case against him.

The court upheld Marvin Gabrion's conviction, but said the sentencing phase of his extraordinary 2002 trial in Grand Rapids federal court must start from scratch.

Gabrion's lawyers should have been allowed to tell jurors that he would not have faced a possible death sentence if prosecuted in state court because Michigan doesn't allow capital punishment, the appeals court said.

U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell barred Gabrion's defense team from making that pitch during the sentencing phase. It may not have made a difference in the ultimate result, but the appeals court said it's a legitimate argument to make to jurors, who unanimously chose the death penalty.

Rachel Timmerman's body was found in a lake in the Manistee National Forest in Newaygo County in 1997. The U.S. attorney's office had jurisdiction because the victim was found in a portion of the lake that is federal property.

During the sentencing phase, prosecutors blamed Gabrion for the disappearance of four other people, including Timmerman's daughter. The body of one, Wayne Davis, was found floating in another lake a few months after the trial. No charges have been filed.

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