Ex parte Frederich

Decision Date24 April 1893
Docket NumberNo. 1,305,1,305
Citation13 S.Ct. 793,37 L.Ed. 653,149 U.S. 70
PartiesEx parte FREDERICH
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

This is an appeal from an order denying an application for a writ of habeas corpus addressed to the court below by Albert Frederich, a prisoner confined in the penitentiary of the state of Washington, at Walla Walla, in that state. See 51 Fed. Rep. 747.

The case, as made by the petition and accompanying exhibits, is as follows: On the 17th of June, 1891, the prisoner was duly indicted by the grand jury of King county, Washington, for the murder of one Julius Scherbring, and upon said indictment he was subsequently arraigned, pleaded not guilty, was tried by a jury, and on the 26th of September, 1891, was found guilty of murder in the first degree. A motion for a new trial having been overruled, he was sentenced to be hung. From this judgment of death, and the order overruling his motion for a new trial, the accused appealed to the supreme court of the state, which reversed the judgment of the trial court, and remanded the case, with a direction to set aside and vacate the judgment imposing the sentence of death, but to let the verdict stand, and to enter a new judgment thereon for murder in the second degree, that being, in the opinion of the state supreme court, the proper degree of his crime, inasmuch as the evidence in the case did not show such deliberate and premeditated malice as would sustain a conviction of murder in the first degree. State v. Freidrich, 4 Wash. 204, 29 Pac. Rep. 1055, 30 Pac. Rep. 328, and 31 Pac. Rep. 332.

This judgment of the supreme court was rendered under and in pursuance of the following provision of Hill's Code of the state, (volume 2:)

'Sec. 1429. The supreme court may affirm, reverse, or modify any judgment or order appealed from, and may direct the proper judgment or order to be entered, or direct a new trial or further proceedings.'

Pursuant to this order of the supreme court, the prisoner, on the 16th of June, 1892, was again brought before the trial court, and adjudged to be guilty of murder in the second degree, and he was thereupon sentenced to imprisonment in the state penitentiary for the term of 20 years. This sentence having been carried into execution, and the prisoner incarcerated in the penitentiary, he thereupon, on the 9th of August, 1892, made this application for a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that he was deprived of his liberty without due process of law, in violation of the provisions of the fourteenth amendment to the constitution of the United States.

The grounds upon which this application is based are that the supreme court of the state was without jurisdiction, and did not have any authority, under said section 1429 of the Code, or under any other law, to render the judgment it did; that all that court could do was either to affirm the judgment of the trial court outright, or to reverse it outright, and, under proper instructions, remand the cause for a new trial by a jury; that therefore its judgment was absolutely void, and the judgment of the trial court in carrying out the directions of the supreme court was, of necessity, void; and that the prisoner ought therefore to be discharged.

The court below practically agreed with the petitioner that the supreme court of the state had misinterpreted said section 1429 of the Code, and that what it had actually done, by its decision and judgment, was to modify the verdict of the jury, which, under legal and proper proceedings, it had no authority to do; that its judgment, and the subsequent judgment of the trial court carrying it into effect, were both void; and that, therefore, the petitioner's imprisonment was without due process of law, and in violation of the fourteenth amendment to the federal constitution. The circuit court further ruled, however, that the petitioner's proper remedy was not by writ of habeas corpus in the federal courts, in the first instance, but that he should first raise the question of his illegal imprisonment in the state courts, and, if it was finally decided against him by the state supreme court, he could then have it reviewed and corrected by the supreme court of the United States on a writ of error; and it accordingly denied the application. 51 Fed. Rep. 747.

S. F. Phillips and Fred. D. McKenney, for appellant.

W. C. Jones, Attorney General of Washington, for respondent.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 72-74 intentionally omitted] Mr Justice JACKSON delivered the opinion of the court.

At common law the general rule undoubtedly was that where an erroneous judgment was entered by a trial court, or an erroneous sentence imposed, on a valid indictment, the appellate court, on error, could not itself render such a judgment as the trial court should have rendered, or remit the case to the trial court with directions for it to do so, but the only thing it could do was to reverse the judgment and discharge the defendant. This rule was recognized in England in the case of Rex v. Bourne, 7 Adol. & E. 58, where the court of king's bench reversed the judgment of the court of quarter sessions, and discharged the defendants, because the sentence imposed upon them by that court was of a lower grade than that which the law provided for the crime of which they had been convicted.

Some of the states in which the common law prevails, or is adhered to, have adopted the same rule; but in most of the states it is expressly provided by statute that when there is an error in the sentence which calls for a reversal the appellate court is to render such judgment as the court below should have rendered, or to remand the record to the court below with directions for it to render the proper judgment, and this practice seems to prevail in the state of Washington. The whole subject is discussed in Whart. Crim. Pl. §§ 780, 927, where the authorities are collected and cited.

But whether this practice in the state of Washington is warranted, under a correct construction of said section 1429 of the Code, or whether, if it is, that section violates the fourteenth amendment to the federal constitution, in that it operates to deprive a defendant whose case is governed by it of his liberty without due process of law, we do not feel called upon to determine in this case, because we are of opinion that for other reasons the writ of habeas corpus was properly refused.

While the writ of habeas corpus is one of the remedies for the enforcement of the right to personal freedom, it will not issue as a matter of course, and it should be cautiously used by the federal courts in reference to state prisoners. Being a civil process, it cannot be converted into a remedy for the correction of mere errors of judgment or of procedure in the court having cognizance of the criminal offense. Under the writ of habeas corpus this court can exercise no appellate jurisdiction over the proceedings of the trial court or courts of the state, nor review their conclusions of law or fact, and pronounce them erroneous. The writ of...

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