168 U.S. 532 (1897), 340, Bram v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 340
Citation:168 U.S. 532, 18 S.Ct. 183, 42 L.Ed. 568
Party Name:Bram v. United States
Case Date:December 13, 1897
Court:United States Supreme Court

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168 U.S. 532 (1897)

18 S.Ct. 183, 42 L.Ed. 568



United States

No. 340

United States Supreme Court

December 13, 1897

Argued October 18, 19, 1897




This was an indictment for murder alleged to have been committed on an American vessel on the high seas. After the crime was discovered, Brown, a sailor, was put in irons and the vessel was headed for Halifax. Before it reached there, Brown charged Bram with the commission of the crime, saying that he had seen him do it. Bram was then also put in irons. On the arrival at Halifax, Power, a policeman and detective in the government service at that place, had a conversation with Bram. Bram was indicted at Boston for the commission of the crime, and, on his trial, Power was offered as a witness for the Government. He testified that he made an examination of Bram, in his own office in the city hall at Halifax, when no one was present besides Bram and himself, and that no threats were made in any way to Bram, nor any inducements held out to him. The witness was then asked: "What did you say to him and he to you?" To this, defendant's counsel objected. The defendant's counsel was permitted to cross-examine the witness before the court ruled upon the objection, and the witness stated that the conversation took place in his office, where he had caused the defendant Bram to be brought by a police officer; that, up to that time, the defendant had been in the custody of the police authorities of Halifax; that the witness asked that the defendant should be brought to his office for the purpose of interviewing him; that, at his office, he stripped the defendant and examined his clothing, but not his pockets; that he told the defendant to submit to an examination, and that he searched him; that the defendant was then in custody, and did everything the witness directed him to do; that all this took place before the defendant had been examined before the United States consul, and that the witness did not know that the local authorities had at that time taken any action, or that the defendant was held for the United States -- for the consul general of the United States. The witness answered questions by the court as follows:

You say there was no inducement to him in the way of

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promise or expectation of advantage?

A. Not any, your honor.

Q. Held out?

A. Not any, your honor.

Q. Nor anything said in the way of suggestion to him that he might suffer if he did not -- that it might be worse for him?

A. No, sir, not any.

Q. So far as you were concerned, it was entirely voluntary?

A. Voluntary, indeed.

Q. No influence on your part exerted to persuade him one way or the other?

A. None whatever, sir; none whatever.

The defendant then renewed his objection to the question, what conversation had taken place between Bram and the witness, for the following reasons: that, at the time, the defendant was in the custody of the chief of police at Halifax; that the witness in an official capacity directed the police authorities to bring defendant as a prisoner to his office, and there stripped him; that defendant understood that he was a prisoner, and obeyed every order and direction that the witness gave. Under these circumstances, the counsel submitted that no statement made by the defendant while so held in custody and his rights interfered with to the extent described was a free and voluntary statement, and no statement as made by him bearing upon this issue was competent. The objection was overruled, and the defendant excepted on all the grounds above stated, and the exceptions were allowed. The witness answered as follows:

When Mr. Bram came into my office, I said to him, "Bram, we are trying to unravel this horrible mystery." I said, "Your position is rather an awkward one. I have had Brown in this office, and he made a statement that he saw you do the murder. He said, "He could not have seen me; where was he? I said, "He state he was at the wheel." "Well," he said, "he could not see me from there." I said, "How, look here, Bram, I am satisfied that you killed the captain from all I have heard from Mr. Brown. But," I said, "some of us here think you could not have done all that crime alone. If you had an accomplice, you should say so, and not have the blame of this horrible crime on your own shoulders." He said, "Well, I think, and many others on board the ship think, that Brown is the murderer; but I don't know anything about it." He was rather short in his replies.

Q. Anything further said by either of you?

A. No, there was nothing further said on that occasion.

The direct examination of this witness was limited to the interview between the witness and the defendant Bram.


(1) That this statement made by the accused to a police officer was evidently not a voluntary confession, and was not admissible in evidence against him;

(2) That the objection to its admission having been twice presented and regularly allowed, it was not necessary that it should be renewed at the termination of the testimony of the witness.

The objection that the indictment recited that it was presented upon the oath of the jurors when the fact was that it was presented upon the oath and affirmation of the jurors is without merit.

The objection that neither in the indictment nor in the proof at the hearing of the pleas in abatement was it affirmatively stated or shown that grand

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juror Merrill, before being permitted to affirm, was shown to have possessed conscientious scruples against taking an oath is also without merit.

As the evidence against Bram was purely circumstantial, it was clearly proper for the Government to endeavor to establish as a circumstance in the case the fact that another person who was present in the vicinity at the time of the killing could not have committed the crime.

The objection to a question asked of a medical witness, whether, in his opinion, a man standing at the hip of a recumbent person and striking blows on that person's head and fore head with an axe would necessarily be spattered with, or covered with, some of the blood was also properly overruled.

The case is stated in the opinion.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the court.

This writ of error is prosecuted to a verdict and sentence thereon by which the plaintiff was found guilty of murder and condemned to suffer death. The homicide was committed on board the American ship Herbert Fuller while on the high seas, bound from Boston to a port in South America. The accused was the first officer of the ship, and the deceased, of whose murder he was convicted, was the [18 S.Ct. 184] master of the vessel. The bill of exceptions, after stating the sailing of the vessel from Boston on the 2d of July, 1896, with a cargo of lumber, gives a general summary of the facts leading up to and surrounding the homicide, as follows:

She had on board a captain, Charles I. Nash; Bram, the defendant; a second mate, August W. Blomberg; a steward; and six seamen; also the captain's wife, Laura A. Nash, and one passenger, Lester H. Monks.

The vessel proceeded on her course towards her port of destination until the night between July 13th and July 14th. On that night, at 12 o'clock, the second mate's watch was relieved by the mate's watch, of which Bram, the defendant, was

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the officer in charge. The captain, his wife, the passenger, Monks, and the first mate and the second mate, all lived in the after-cabin, occupying separate rooms. . . . The crew and the steward slept forward in the forward house.

When the watch was changed at midnight, Bram, the defendant, took the deck, the seamen Loheac and Perdok went forward on the lookout, and Charles Brown, otherwise called Justus Leopold Westerberg, his true name, took the wheel, where it was his duty to remain till two o'clock, at about which time he was relieved by Loheac. The second mate went to his room and the seamen of his watch to their quarters at twelve midnight, and there was no evidence that any of them or the steward appeared again till daylight.

The passenger, Monks, who occupied a room on the starboard side of the cabin between the chart room where the captain slept and the room on the forward starboard side where Mrs. Nash slept, with doors opening from the passenger's room into both the chart room used by the captain as his room and that of Mrs. Nash, was aroused not far from two o'clock -- the exact time is not known, as he says -- by a scream, and by another sound, characterized by him as a gurgling sound. He arose, went to the captain's room, and found the captain's cot overturned, and the captain lying on the floor by it. He spoke, but got no answer; put his hand on the captain's body, and found it damp or wet. He then went to Mrs. Nash's room; did not see her, but saw dark spots on her bedding, and suspected something wrong. He went on deck, and called the mate, the defendant, telling him the captain was killed. Both went below, took down the lantern hanging in the main cabin, burning dimly, turned it up, and went through the captain's room to the passenger's room, and the passenger there put on a shirt and pantaloons. They then both returned to the deck, the mate on the way stopping a brief time in his own room. Bram and Monks remained talking on deck till about daybreak, when the steward was called, and told what had happened. Up to this time, no call had been made for the second mate, nor had anyone visited his room. Later, it was found that Captain Nash, his wife, and

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Blomberg, the second mate, were all dead, each with several wounds upon the head, apparently given with a sharp instrument, like an axe, penetrating the skull, and into the substance of the brain; and the second mate lying on his back, with...

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