James Holt v. United States

Citation54 L.Ed. 1021,218 U.S. 245,20 Ann. Cas. 1138,31 S.Ct. 2
Decision Date31 October 1910
Docket NumberNo. 231,231
PartiesJAMES H. HOLT, Plff. in Err., v. UNITED STATES
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Messrs. Hugh M. Caldwell, C. F. Riddell, and John Lewis Smith for plaintiff in error.

Assistant Attorney General Fowler for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice Holmes delivered the opinion of the court:

The plaintiff in error was indicted in the circuit court for murder, alleged to have been committed 'within the Fort Worden Military Reservation, a place under the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States.' There was a trial and a verdict of guilty, without capital punishment, as allowed by statute. He was sentenced to imprisonment for life, and thereupon brought this writ of error. 168 Fed. 141.

The seriousness of some of the questions raised is somewhat obscured by a number of meticulous objections. We shall dispose of the latter summarily, and shall discuss at length only matters that deserve discussion. We shall follow in the main the order adopted by the plaintiff in error.

The indictment is well enough. The words quoted at the outset convey with clearness sufficient for justice that the Fort Worden Military Reservation was under the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States at the time of the murder. It is alleged that Holt did with force and arms and assault make upon one Henry E. Johnson with a certain iron bar, and did then and there feloniously, wilfully, knowingly, and with malice aforethought, strike, beat, and mortally wound him, the said Henry E. Johnson, with said iron bar, etc. As the acts constituting the assault are alleged to have been made feloniously and with malice aforethought, there was no need to make such allegations in the preliminary averment of assault.

It is pressed with more earnestness that the court erred in not granting leave to withdraw the plea of not guilty, and to interpose a plea in abatement and motion to quash. The ground on which leave was asked was an affidavit of the prisoner's counsel that they had been informed by Captain Newton, of the Coast Artillery Corps, that he testified before the grand jury to admissions by the prisoner, but that these admissions were obtained under circumstances that made them incompetent. The affidavit added that, aside from the above testimony, there was very little evidence against the accused. Without considering how far, if at all, the court is warranted in inquiring into the nature of the evidence on which a grand jury has acted, and how far, in case of such an inquiry, the discretion of the trial court is subject to review (United States v. Rosenburgh, 7 Wall. 580, 19 L. ed. 263), it is enough to say that there is no reason for reviewing it here. All that the affidavit disclosed was that evidence in its nature competent, but made incompetent by circumstances, had been considered along with the rest. The abuses of criminal practice would be enhanced if indictments could be upset on such a ground. McGregor v. United States, 69 C. C. A. 477, 134 Fed. 187, 192; Radford v. United States, 63 C. C. A. 491, 129 Fed. 49, 51; Chadwick v. United States, 72 C. C. A. 343, 141 Fed. 225, 235.

Next it is said that there was error in not sustaining a challenge for cause to a juryman; with the result that the prisoner's peremptory challenges were diminished by one. On his examination it appeared that this juryman had not talked with anyone who purported to know about the case of his own knowledge, but that he had taken the newspaper statements for facts; that he had no opinion other than that derived from the papers, and that evidence would change it very easily, although it would take some evidence to remove it. He stated that if the evidence failed to prove the facts alleged in the newspapers, he would decide according to the evidence or lack of evidence at the trial, and that he thought he could try the case solely upon the evidence, fairly and impartially. The finding of the trial court upon the strength of the juryman's opinions and his partiality or impartiality ought not to be set aside by a reviewing court unless the error is manifest, which it is far from being in this case. See Reynolds v. United States, 98 U. S. 145, 25 L. ed. 244; Hopt v. Utah, 120 U. S. 430, 30 L. ed. 708, 7 Sup. Ct. Rep. 614; Spies v. Illinois, 123 U. S. 131, 31 L. ed. 80, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 21, 22. If the decisions of the state of Washington are of especial importance, we do not understand Rose v. State, 2 Wash. 310, 312, 26 Pac. 264; State v. Croney, 31 Wash. 122, 125, 126, 71 Pac. 783, and intervening cases to be overruled by State v. Riley, 36 Wash. 441, 447, 448, 78 Pac. 1001.

Before the above-mentioned motion to withdraw the plea of not guilty was argued, the judge was asked to exclude the twelve jurors who had been selected al- though not sworn. He replied that he was unwilling to exclude the jury from any part of the proceedings in the trial. Later, after the jury had been sworn, he pursued the same course while hearing preliminary evidence of the circumstances in which the prisoner was alleged to have made statements, and while hearing arguments as to admitting the statements. The district attorney spoke of the admissibility of 'confessions' in the course of his remarks. Exceptions were taken and the judge's refusal is urged with much earnestness to have been error. But we are of opinion that it was within the discretion of the judge to allow the jury to remain in court. Technically the offer of the evidence had to be made in their presence before any question of excluding them could arise. They must have known, even if they left the court, that statements relied on as admitting part or the whole of the government's case were offered. The evidence to which they listened was simply evidence of facts deemed by the judge sufficient to show that the statements, if any, were not freely made, and it could not have prejudiced the prisoner. No evidence was admitted that the prisoner had made any confession, and his statements were excluded. Moreover, the judge said to the jury that they were to decide the case on the testimony as it came from the witnesses on the stand; not what counsel might say or the newspapers publish; that he was not excluding them, because he assumed that they were men of experience and common sense and could decide the case upon the evidence that the court admitted. He also told them in the strongest terms that the preliminary evidence that he was hearing had no bearing on the question they had to decide. No doubt the more conservative course is to exclude the jury during the consideration of the admissibility of confessions, but there is force in the judge's view that if juries are fit to play the part assigned to them by our law, they will be able to do what a judge had to do every time that he tries a case on the facts without them, and we cannot say that he was wrong in thinking that the men before him were competent for their task.

Objections similar to the last are taken to the conduct of the district attorney. They are stated and argued, like the last, with many details, which we have examined, but think it unnecessary to reproduce. In his opening the district attorney stated that the prisoner admitted that a coat with soot marks upon it, and a gunner's badge were his, and was going on to recite further statements, when they were objected to. The district attorney answered that these were voluntary confessions, but that he would omit them, if objected to, until the proper time, and desisted. Objection was made to the word 'confessions,' and the judge replied that he did not hear any statement that the prisoner...

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