No. 1008.

146 U.S. 140 (1892)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided November 14, 1892.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. J.W. Johnson and Mr. T.F. McMechan for plaintiff in error.

Mr. Assistant Attorney General Maury for defendant in error.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

The allowance or refusal of a new trial rests in the sound discretion of the court to which the application is addressed, and the result cannot be made the subject of review by writ of error, Henderson v. Moore, 5 Cranch, 11; Newcomb v. Wood, 97 U.S. 581; but in the case at bar the District Court excluded the affidavits, and, in passing upon the motion, did not exercise any discretion in respect of the matters stated therein. Due exception was taken and the question of admissibility thereby preserved.

It will be perceived that the jurors did not state what influence, if any, the communication of the bailiff and the reading of the newspaper had upon them, but confined their statements to what was said by the one and read from the other.

In United States v. Reid, 12 How. 361, 366, affidavits of two jurors were offered in evidence to establish the reading of a newspaper report of the evidence which had been given in the case under trial, but both deposed that it had no influence on their verdict. Mr. Chief Justice Taney, delivering the opinion of the court, said: "The first branch of the second point presents the question whether the affidavits of jurors impeaching their verdict ought to be received. It would, perhaps, hardly be safe to lay down any general rule upon this subject. Unquestionably such evidence ought always to be received with great caution. But cases might arise in which it would be impossible to refuse them without violating the plainest principles of justice. It is, however, unnecessary to lay down any rule in this case, or examine the decisions referred to in the argument. Because we are of opinion that the facts proved by the jurors, if proved by unquestioned testimony, would be no ground for a new trial. There was nothing in the newspapers calculated to influence their decision, and both of them swear that these papers had not the slightest influence on their verdict." The opinion thus indicates that public policy which forbids the reception of the affidavits, depositions or sworn statements of jurors to impeach their verdicts, may in the interest of justice create an exception to its own rule, while, at the same time, the necessity of great caution in the use of such evidence is enforced.

There is, however, a recognized distinction between what may and what may not be established by the testimony of jurors to set aside a verdict.

This distinction is thus put by Mr. Justice Brewer, speaking for the Supreme Court of Kansas in Perry v. Bailey, 12 Kans. 539, 545: "Public policy forbids that a matter resting in the personal consciousness of one juror should be received to overthrow the verdict, because being personal it is not accessible to other testimony; it gives to the secret thought of one the power to disturb the expressed conclusions of twelve; its tendency is to produce bad faith on the part of a minority, to induce an apparent acquiescence with the purpose of subsequent dissent; to induce tampering with individual jurors subsequent to the verdict. But as to overt acts, they are accessible to the knowledge of all the jurors; if one affirms misconduct, the remaining eleven can deny; one cannot disturb the action of the twelve; it is useless to tamper with one, for the eleven may be heard. Under this view of the law the affidavits were properly received. They tended to prove something which did not essentially inhere in the verdict, an overt act, open to the knowledge of all the jury, and not alone within the personal consciousness of one."

The subject was much considered by Mr. Justice Gray, then a member of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, in Woodward v. Leavitt, 107 Mass. 453, where numerous authorities were referred to and applied, and the conclusions announced, "that on a motion for a new trial on the ground of bias on the part of one of the jurors, the evidence of jurors as to the motives and influences which affected their deliberations, is inadmissible either to impeach or to support the verdict. But a juryman may testify to any facts bearing upon the question of the existence of any extraneous influence, although not as to how far that influence operated upon his mind. So a juryman may testify in denial or explanation of acts or declarations outside of the jury room, where evidence of such acts has been given as ground for a new trial." See, also, Ritchie v. Holbrooke, 7 S. & R. 458; Chews v. Driver, 1 Coxe (N.J.), 166; Nelms v. Mississippi, 13 Sm. & Marsh. 500; Hawkins v. New Orleans Printing Co., 29 La. Ann. 134, 140; Whitney v. Whitman, 5 Mass. 405; Hix v. Drury, 5 Pick. 296.

We regard the rule thus laid down as conformable to right reason and sustained by the weight of authority. These affidavits were within the rule, and being material their exclusion constitutes reversible error. A brief examination will demonstrate their materiality.

It is vital in capital cases that the jury should pass upon the case free from external causes tending to disturb the exercise of deliberate and unbiassed judgment. Nor can any ground of suspicion that the administration of justice has been interfered with be tolerated. Hence, the separation of the jury in such a way as to expose them to tampering, may be reason for a new trial, variously held as absolute; or prima facie, and subject to rebuttal by the prosecution; or contingent on proof indicating that a tampering really took place. Wharton Cr. Pl. and Pr. §§ 821, 823, 824, and cases cited.

Private communications, possibly prejudicial, between jurors and third persons, or witnesses, or the officer in charge, are absolutely forbidden, and invalidate the verdict, at least unless their harmlessness is made to appear.

Indeed, it was held in People v. Knapp, 42 Michigan, 267, that the presence of an officer during the deliberations of the jury is such an irregular invasion of the right of trial by jury as to absolutely vitiate the verdict in all cases without regard to whether any improper influences were actually exerted over the jury or not. And in Kansas v. Snyder, 20 Kansas, 306, where the bailiff, who had charge of the jury, had been introduced and examined as a witness on behalf of the State, and had testified to material facts against the accused, his presence in the jury room during the deliberations of the jury was held fatal to the verdict.

In Gainey v. People, 97 Illinois, 270, the Supreme Court of Illinois was of opinion that the presence of a bailiff, in charge of a jury in a capital case, in the jury room during a part of their deliberations, was a grave irregularity and a breach of duty on the part of the officer, which would or would not vitiate the verdict, depending upon the circumstances in each particular case, and the application of the rule in Kansas v. Snyder, was approved; but the conclusion reached in People v. Knapp was not fully sanctioned. The text-books refer to many cases in which the action of the officer having a jury in charge, when prejudice might have resulted; or unauthorized communications having a tendency to adverse influence; or the reading of newspapers containing imperfect reports of the trial, or objectionable matter in the form of editorial comments or otherwise, have been held fatal to verdicts.

The jury in the case before us retired to consider of their verdict on the 7th of October, and had not agreed on the morning of the 8th, when the newspaper article was read to them. It is not open to reasonable doubt that the tendency of that article was injurious to the defendant. Statements that the defendant had been tried for his life once before; that the evidence against him was claimed to be very strong by those who had heard all the testimony; that the argument for the prosecution was such that the defendant's friends gave up all hope of any result but conviction; and that it was expected that the deliberations of the jury would not last an hour before they would return a verdict, could have no other tendency. Nor can it be legitimately contended that the misconduct of the bailiff could have been otherwise than prejudicial. Information that this was the third person Clyde Mattox had killed, coming from the officer in charge, precludes any other conclusion. We should, therefore, be compelled to reverse the judgment because the affidavits were not received and considered by the court; but another ground exists upon which we must not only do this, but direct a new trial to be granted.

Dying declarations are admissible on a trial for murder as to the fact of the homicide and the person by whom it was committed, in favor of the defendant as well as against him. 1 East P.C. 353; Rex v. Scaife, 1 Mood. & Rob. 551; United States v. Taylor, 4 Cranch, C.C. 338; Moore v. Alabama, 12 Alabama, 764; Commonwealth v. Matthews, 89 Kentucky, 287. But it must be shown by the party offering them in evidence that they were made under a sense of impending death. This may be made to appear from what the injured person said; or from the nature and extent of the wounds inflicted, being obviously such that he must have felt or known that he could not survive; as well as from his conduct at the time and the communications, if any, made to him by his medical advisers, if assented to or understandingly acquiesced in by him. The length of time elapsing between the making of the declaration and the death is one of the elements to be considered, although as stated by Mr. Greenleaf, "it is the impression of almost immediate dissolution, and not the rapid succession of death, in point of fact, that renders the testimony admissible." 1 Greenleaf Ev. 15th ed. §§ 156, 157, 158; State v. Wensell, 98 Missouri, 137; Commonwealth v. Haney, 127 Mass. 455; Kehoe v. Commonwealth, 85 Penn. St. 127; Swisher v. Commonwealth, 26 Gratt. 963; State v. Schmidt, 73 Iowa, 469. In Regina v. Perkins, 9 C. & P. 395, the deceased received a severe wound from a gun loaded with shot, of which wound he died at five o'clock the next morning. On the evening of the day on which he was wounded, he was told by a surgeon that he could not recover, made no reply, but appeared dejected. It was held by all the judges of England that a declaration made by him at that time was receivable in evidence on the trial of a person for killing him, as being a declaration in articulo mortis. There the declaration was against the accused, and obviously no more rigorous rule should be applied when it is in his favor. The point is to ascertain the state of the mind at the time the declarations were made. The admission of the testimony is justified upon the ground of necessity, and in view of the consideration that the certain expectation of almost immediate death will remove all temptation to falsehood, and enforce as strict adherence to the truth as the obligation of an oath could impose. But the evidence must be received with the utmost caution, and if the circumstances do not satisfactorily disclose that the awful and solemn situation in which he is placed is realized by the dying man because of the hope of recovery, it ought to be rejected. In this case the lapse of time was but a few hours; the wounds were three in number and one of them of great severity; the patient was perfectly conscious, and asked the attending physician his opinion, and was told that the chances were all against him, and that the physician thought there was no "show for you [him] at all." He was then interrogated as to who did the shooting, and he replied that he did not know. All this was admitted without objection. Defendant's counsel then endeavored to elicit from the witness whether, in addition to saying that he did not know the parties who shot him, Mullen stated that he knew Clyde Mattox, and that it was not Clyde who did so. The question propounded was objected to on the sole ground of incompetency, and the objection sustained. In this, as the case stood, there was error. So long as the evidence was in the case as to what Mullen said, defendant was entitled to refresh the memory of the witness in a proper manner and bring out, if he could, what more, if anything thing, he said in that connection. It was not inconsistent with Mullen's statement that he did not know the parties, for him also to have said that he knew Mattox was not one of them. His ignorance of who shot him was not incompatible with knowledge of who did not shoot him. We regard the error thus committed as justifying the awarding of a new trial.

The judgment is reversed, and the cause remanded to the District Court of the United States for the District of Kansas, with a direction to grant a new trial.


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