110 U.S. 651 (1884), The Ku Klux Cases

Citation:110 U.S. 651, 4 S.Ct. 152, 28 L.Ed. 274
Party Name:'THE KU-KLUX CASES.' Ex parte YARBROUGH and others.
Case Date:March 03, 1884
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 651

110 U.S. 651 (1884)

4 S.Ct. 152, 28 L.Ed. 274


Ex parte YARBROUGH and others.

United States Supreme Court.

March 3, 1884


Page 652

[4 S.Ct. 152] Henry B. Tompkins, for petitioners.

Sol. Gen. Phillips, for respondent.



This case originates in this court by an application for a writ of habeas corpus on the part of Jasper Yarbrough and seven other persons, who allege that they are confined by the jailer of Fulton county in the custody of the United States marshal for the Northern district of Georgia, and that the trial, conviction, and sentence in the circuit court of the United States for that district, under which they are held, were illegal, null, and void. The court, on the filing of this petition, issued a rule on the

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marshal, or on any person in whose custody the prisoners might be found, to show cause why the writ of habeas corpus should not issue for their release. It appears, by the returns made to this rule, that the sentence of the court, which ordered their imprisonment in the Albany penitentiary, in the state of New York, at hard labor for the term of two years, has been so far executed that they are now in that prison. The rule having been served on John McEwan, superintendent of the penitentiary, he makes return that he holds the prisoners by virtue of the sentence of the circuit court for the Northern district of Georgia, and annexes to his return a transcript of the proceeding in that court. As this return is precisely the same that the superintendent would make if the writ of habeas corpus had been served on him, the court here can determine the right of the prisoners to be released on this rule to show cause as correctly and with more convenience in the administration of justice, than if the prisoners were present under the writ in the custody of the superintendent; and such is the practice of this court. That this court has no general authority to review on error or appeal the judgments of the circuit courts of the United States in cases within their criminal jurisdiction is beyond question; but it is equally [4 S.Ct. 153] well settled that when a prisoner is held under the sentence of any court of the United States in regard to a matter wholly beyond or without the jurisdiction of that court, it is not only within the authority of the supreme court, but it is its duty, to inquire into the cause of commitment when the matter is properly brought to its attention, and if found to be as charged, a matter of which such court had no jurisdiction, to discharge the prisoner from confinement. Ex parte Kearney, 7 Wheat. 38; Ex parte Wells, 18 How. 307; Ex parte Lange, 18 Wall. 163; Ex parte Parks, 93 U.S. 18.

It is, however, to be carefully observed that this latter principle does not authorize the court to convert the writ of habeas corpus into a writ of error, by which the errors of law committed by the court that passed the sentence can be reviewed here; for if that court had jurisdiction of the party, and of the offense for which he was tried, and has not exceeded its

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powers in the sentence which it pronounced, this court can inquire no further. This principle disposes of the argument made before us on the insufficiency of the indictments under which the prisoners in this case were tried. Whether the indictment sets forth in comprehensive terms the offense which the statute describes and forbids, and for which it prescribes a punishment, is in every case a question of law which must necessarily be decided by the court in which the case originates, and is therefore clearly within its jurisdiction. Its decision on the conformity of the indictment to the provisions of the statute may be erroneous; but, if so, it is an error of law made by a court acting within its jurisdiction, which could be corrected on a writ of of error, if such writ was allowed, but which cannot be looked into on a writ of habeas corpus limited to an inquiry into the existence of jurisdiction on the part of that court. This principle is decided in Ex parte Watkins, 3 Pet. 203, and Ex parte Parks, 93 U.S. 21.

This, however, leaves for consideration the more important question--the one mainly relied on by counsel for petitioners--whether the law of congress, as found in the Revised Statutes of the United States, under which the prisoners are held, is warranted by the constitution, or, being without such warrant, is null and void. If the law which defines the offense and prescribes its punishment is void, the court was without jurisdiction, and the prisoners must be discharged. Though several different sections of the Revised Statutes are brought into the discussion as the foundation of the indictments found in the record, we think only two of them demand our attention here, namely, sections 5508 and 5520. They are in the following language:

'Sec. 5508. If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same,

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or if two or more persons go in disguise on the highway, or on the premises of another, with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege so secured, they shall be fined not more than five thousand dollars and imprisoned not more than ten years; and shall, moreover, be thereafter ineligible to any office or place of honor, profit, or trust created by the constitution or laws of the United States.

'Sec. 5520. If two or more persons in any state or territory conspire to prevent, by force, intimidation, or threat, any citizen who is lawfully entitled to vote from giving his support or advocacy, in a legal manner, towards or in favor of the election of any lawfully qualified person as an elector for president or vice-president, or as a member of the congress of the United States, or to injure any citizen in person or property on account of such support or advocacy, each of such persons shall be punished by a fine of not less than five hundred nor more than five thousand dollars, or by imprisonment, with or without hard labor, not less than six months nor more than six years, or by both such fine and imprisonment.'

[4 S.Ct. 154] The indictments, four in number, on which petitioners were tried, charge in each one all of the defendants with a conspiracy under these sections, directed against a different person in each indictment. On the trial the cases were consolidated, and as each indictment is in the identical language of all the others, except as to the name of the person assaulted and the date of the transaction, the copy which is here presented will answer for all of them:

'We, the grand jurors of the United States, chosen, selected, and sworn in and for the Northern district of Georgia, upon our oaths, present: That heretofore, to-wit, on the twenty-fifth day of July, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eighty-three, Jasper Yarbrough, James Yarbrough, Dilmus Yarbrough, Neal Yarbrough, Lovel Streetman, Bold Emory, State Lemmons, Jake Hayes, and E. H. Green, all late of said Northern district of Georgia, did, within the said Northern district of Georgia, and within the jurisdiction of this court, commit the offense of conspiracy, for that the said Jasper Yarbrough, James...

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