Nos. 431, 432, 433.

172 U.S. 303 (1899)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided January 8, 1899.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. George Kearney for Winston. Mr. Charles H. Turner was on his brief.

Mr. Samuel D. Truitt for Strather. Mr. Tracy L. Jeffords was on his brief.

Mr. Henry E. Davis for the United States. Mr. Assistant Attorney General Boyd was on his brief.

Mr. F.S. Key Smith for Smith.

MR. JUSTICE GRAY, after stating the cases, delivered the opinion of the court.

By section 5339 of the Revised Statutes, reënacting earlier acts of Congress, "every person who commits murder" "within any fort, arsenal, dockyard, magazine, or in any other place or district of country under the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States," "shall suffer death."

The act of January 15, 1897, c. 29, entitled "An act to reduce the cases in which the penalty of death may be inflicted," provides, in section 1, that in all cases in which the accused is found guilty of the crime of murder under section 5339 of the Revised Statutes "the jury may qualify their verdict by adding thereto `without capital punishment;' and whenever the jury shall return a verdict qualified as aforesaid the person convicted shall be sentenced to imprisonment at hard labor for life." 29 Stat. 487.

The question presented and argued in each of the three cases now before the court is of the construction and effect of this act of Congress.

The hardship of punishing with death every crime coming within the definition of murder at common law, and the reluctance of jurors to concur in a capital conviction, have induced American legislatures, in modern times, to allow some cases of murder to be punished by imprisonment, instead of by death. That end has been generally attained in one of two ways.

First. In some States and Territories, statutes have been passed establishing degrees of the crime of murder, requiring the degree of murder to be found by the jury, and providing that the courts shall pass sentence of death in those cases only in which the jury return a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree, and sentence of imprisonment when the verdict is guilty of murder in the lesser degree. See Hopt v. Utah, 104 U.S. 631, and 110 U.S. 574; Davis v. Utah, 151 U.S. 262, 267-269.

For instance, the statutes of the Territory of Utah contained the following provisions: "Every murder perpetrated by poison, lying in wait, or any other kind of wilful, deliberate, malicious and premeditated killing; or committed in the perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, any arson, rape, burglary or robbery; or perpetrated from a premeditated design unlawfully and maliciously to effect the death of any other human being, other than him who is killed; or perpetrated by any act greatly dangerous to the lives of others, and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, is murder in the first degree; and any other homicide, committed under such circumstances as would have constituted murder at common law, is murder in the second degree." "Every person guilty of murder in the first degree shall suffer death, or, upon the recommendation of the jury, may be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for life, at the discretion of the court; and every person guilty of murder in the second degree shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for not less than five nor more than fifteen years." Compiled Laws of Utah of 1876, §§ 1919, 1920, pp. 585, 586.

In the leading case of Hopt v. Utah, this court held that evidence that the accused was in a state of voluntary intoxication at the time of the killing, (which would not have been competent in defence of an indictment for murder at common law,) was competent for the consideration of the jury upon the question whether he was in such a condition as to be capable of deliberate premeditation, constituting murder in the first degree under the statute. 104 U.S. 631. Upon a second trial of the same case, the territorial court, in charging the jury, having used this language, "That an atrocious and dastardly murder has been committed by some person is apparent, but in your deliberations you should be careful not to be influenced by any feeling," the conviction was again reversed by this court, saying that this observation was naturally regarded by the jury as an instruction that the offence, by whomsoever committed, was murder in the first degree; whereas it was for the jury, having been informed as to what was murder, by the laws of Utah, to say whether the facts made a case of murder in the first degree or murder in the second degree. 110 U.S. 582. And in Calton v. Utah, 130 U.S. 83, a sentence of death upon a conviction of murder in the first degree was reversed, because the judge had not called the attention of the jury to their right, under the statute, to recommend imprisonment for life at hard labor in the penitentiary in place of the punishment of death; and without a recommendation of the jury to that effect the court could impose no other punishment than death. While those decisions have no direct bearing upon the question now in judgment, they are important as illustrating the steadfastness with which the full and free exercise by the jury of powers newly conferred upon them by statute in this matter has been upheld and guarded by this court as against the possible effect of any restriction or omission in the rulings and instructions of the judge presiding at the trial.

Second. The difficulty of laying down exact and satisfactory definitions of degrees in the crime of murder, applicable to all possible circumstances, has led other legislatures to prefer the more simple and flexible rule of conferring upon the jury, in every case of murder, the right of deciding whether it shall be punished by death or by imprisonment. This method has been followed by Congress in the act of 1897.

The act of Congress confers this right upon the jury in broad and unlimited terms, by enacting that "in all cases in which the accused is found guilty of the crime of murder," "the jury may qualify their verdict by adding thereto `without capital punishment,'" and that "whenever the jury shall return a verdict qualified as aforesaid" the sentence shall be to imprisonment at hard labor for life.

The right to qualify a verdict of guilty, by adding the words "without capital punishment," is thus conferred upon the jury in all cases of murder. The act does not itself prescribe, nor authorize the court to prescribe, any rule defining or circumscribing the exercise of this right; but commits the whole matter of its exercise to the judgment and the consciences of the jury. The authority of the jury to decide that the accused shall not be punished capitally is not limited to cases in which the court, or the jury, is of opinion that there are palliating or mitigating circumstances. But it extends to every case in which, upon a view of the whole evidence, the jury is of opinion that it would not be just or wise to impose capital punishment. How far considerations of age, sex, ignorance, illness or intoxication, of human passion or weakness, of sympathy or clemency, or the irrevocableness of an executed sentence of death, or an apprehension that explanatory facts may exist which have not been brought to light, or any other consideration whatever, should be allowed weight in deciding the question whether the accused should or should not be capitally punished, is committed by the act of Congress to the sound discretion of the jury, and of the jury alone.

The decisions in the highest courts of the several States under similar statutes are not entirely harmonious, but the general current of opinion appears to be in accord with our conclusion. State v. Shields, 11 La. Ann. 395; State v. Melvin, 11 La. Ann. 535; Hill v. State, 72 Georgia, 131; Cyrus v. State, 102 Georgia, 616; Walton v. State, 57 Mississippi, 533; Spain v. State, 59 Mississippi, 19; People v. Bawden, 90 California, 195; People v. Kamaunu, 110 California, 609.

The instructions of the judge to the jury, in each of the three cases now before this court, clearly gave the jury to understand that the act of Congress did not intend or authorize the jury to qualify their verdict by the addition of the words "without capital punishment," unless mitigating or palliating circumstances were proved.

This court is of opinion that these instructions were erroneous in matter of law, as undertaking to control the discretionary power vested by Congress in the jury, and as attributing to Congress an intention unwarranted either by the express words or by the apparent purpose of the statute; and therefore in each of these cases

Judgment must be reversed, and the case remanded to the Court of Appeals with directions to reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, and to order a new trial.



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