165 U.S. 373 (1897), 577, Davis v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 577
Citation:165 U.S. 373, 17 S.Ct. 360, 41 L.Ed. 750
Party Name:Davis v. United States
Case Date:February 15, 1897
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 373

165 U.S. 373 (1897)

17 S.Ct. 360, 41 L.Ed. 750



United States

No. 577

United States Supreme Court

February 15, 1897

Submitted January 19, 1897




Although there is no appearance for the plaintiff in error, yet, as this is a criminal case, involving the punishment of death, the court has carefully examined the record, to see that no injustice has been done the accused.

After a witness, qualified as an expert, has given his professional opinion in reference to that which he has seen or heard, or upon hypothetical questions, it is ordinarily opening the door to too wide an inquiry to interrogate him as to what other scientific men have said upon such matters, or in respect to the general teachings of science thereon, or to permit books of science to be offered in evidence.

An expert on behalf of the defense, in cross-examination, was asked: "You

Page 374

think from your experience with him, from your conversation with him, that he killed the man because he threatened his life?”

An objection to the question being overruled, he answered: "Well, in part, and because he thought his own life was in danger, and because he thought he had the right to destroy this menace to his own life." Held that the objection was properly overruled.

The trial court charged:

The term "insanity," as used in this defense, means such a perverted and deranged condition of the mental and moral faculties as to render a person incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, or unconscious at the time of the nature of the act he is committing, or where, though conscious of it and able to distinguish between right and wrong and know that the act is wrong, yet his will, by which I mean the governing power of his mind, has been, otherwise than voluntarily, so completely destroyed that his actions are not subject to it, but are beyond his control.

Held that this was not prejudicial to the defendant.

Under the circumstances, the court did right to refuse the instruction asked for with reference to manslaughter.

[17 S.Ct. 360] On October 13, 1894, defendant was indicted in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Western District of Arkansas for the crime of murder. A trial being had, he was found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged. This judgment was reversed by this Court on the ground of error in the instructions of the court in respect to the matter of insanity. Davis v. United States, 160 U.S. 469. A second trial was had, which resulted in a similar sentence, to review which this writ of error has been sued out.

The circumstances of the homicide were briefly these, and in respect to them there was no dispute: the deceased and defendant had a misunderstanding in regard to the making of a sugar cane crop which the defendant was making for the deceased on land rented from him. About a week thereafter, and on September 18, 1894, the defendant took a gun, and slipped up to near where the deceased was at work picking cotton, shot and killed him while so at work, and while unarmed, and doing nothing towards harming defendant. He then ran away from the place where the shot was fired to the nearest town, and surrendered himself to the officers, telling them he had killed the deceased, and detailing the circumstances.

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BREWER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BREWER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The principal defense presented on this trial, as on the former, was insanity. Indeed, the circumstances of the homicide were such as to preclude any other. The deceased, peacefully at work, unarmed, and making no demonstrations against the defendant, [17 S.Ct. 361] was shot and killed by the latter, and this in consequence of a dispute more than a week old. The act thus done, if done by a man fully responsible for his actions, was unquestionably murder in the first degree. Counsel for defendant have filed no brief and made no argument. With the trial in the circuit court, suing out a writ of error, and filing assignments of error, their connection with the case ceased. If this were a civil case, undoubtedly, under Rule 16 of this Court, the writ of error would be dismissed, or the record opened and an affirmance ordered without examination. And if it were a criminal case of small importance, it is probable that the same disposition would be made; but as the offense charged, and of which the defendant was convicted, is murder, and the punishment death, we have felt it to be our duty to carefully examine the record, with all the assignments of error, in order to see that no injustice...

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