People v. Harris

CourtNew York Court of Appeals
Writing for the CourtGRAY
Citation33 N.E. 65,136 N.Y. 423
Decision Date17 January 1893
PartiesPEOPLE v. HARRIS.

136 N.Y. 423
33 N.E. 65

PEOPLE
v.
HARRIS.

Court of Appeals of New York.

Jan. 17, 1893.


Appeal from court of general sessions, New York county.

Carlyle W. Harris was convicted of murder in the first degree, committed upon Helen Neil Potts by administering to her a sufficient quantity of morphine to cause her death, and defendant appeals. Affirmed.


[136 N.Y. 424]William F. Howe, for appellant.

136 N.Y. 425]De Lancey Nicoll, Dist. Atty., and Henry B. B. Stapler, Asst. Dist. Atty., for the People.
[136 N.Y. 427]GRAY, J.

The defendant was charged with the crime of murder in the first degree, committed upon Helen Neil Potts by administering to her morphine in a large enough quantity to cause her death. His indictment was followed by a trial in the court of general sessions of the peace of the city and county of New York, at which he was convicted upon the verdict of the jury. From the judgment of that court, and from the order denying his motion for a new trial, he appeals to this court. He says that justice demands that he should [136 N.Y. 428]be granted a new trial for errors, which he points out as having been committed upon his trial, and because his conviction was not justified by the evidence.

A careful reading of the evidence contained in this very voluminous record, and a conscientious consideration of the facts disclosed, must inevitably lead to the formation of an opinion that the verdict of the jury was not only justified, but that no other conclusion could have been reached by the fairest mind. The death of the young woman was not disputed, but the cause of her death was. The great bulk of this record is made up of the evidence given on behalf of the people to establish a poisoning by morphine as the cause of the death, and to demonstrate the guilt of the accused; while the evidence in his behalf was confined to the examination of several medical experts, for the purpose of proving that the death of the deceased might be attributed to other

[33 N.E. 67

causes than to morphine poisoning. The evidence connecting the accused with the commission of the crime charged was wholly circumstantial. There was neither testimony by some eyewitness of the giving of the poison, nor of any admission by the accused.

All evidence is, in a strict sense, more or less circumstantial, whether consisting in facts which permit the inference of guilt, or whether given by eyewitnesses of the occurrence; for the testimony of eyewitnesses is, of course, based upon circumstances more or less distinctly and directly observed. But, of course, there is a difference between evidence consisting in facts of a peculiar nature, and hence giving rise to presumptions, and evidence which is direct, as consisting in the positive testimony of eyewitnesses; and the difference is material according to the degree of exactness and relevancy, the weight of the circumstances, and the credibility of witnesses. The mind may be reluctant to conclude upon the issue of guilt in criminal cases upon evidence which is not direct, and yet, if the facts brought out, when taken together, all point in the one direction of guilt, and to the exclusion of any other hypothesis, there is no substantial reason for that reluctance. Purely circumstantial evidence may be often more satisfactory, [136 N.Y. 429]and a safer form of evidence, for it must rest upon facts which, to prove the truth of the charge made, must collectively tend to establish the guilt of the accused. For instance, if any of the material facts of a case were at variance with the probabilities of guilt, it would be the duty of the jury to give to the defendant the benefit of the doubt raised. A fact has the sense of, and is equivalent to, a truth, or that which is real. It is in the ingenious combination of facts that they may be made to deceive, or to express what is not the truth. In the evidence of eyewitnesses to prove the facts of an occurrence we are not guarantied against mistake and falsehood, or the distortion of truth by exaggeration or prejudice; but when we are dealing with a number of established facts, if, upon arranging, examining, and weighing them in our mind, we reach only the conclusion of guilt, the judgment rests upon pillars as substantial and sound as though resting upon the testimony of eyewitnesses. The necessity of a resort to circumstantial evidence in criminal cases is apparent in the nature of things, for a criminal act is sought to be performed in secrecy, and an intending wrongdoer usually chooses his time, and an occasion when most favorable to concealment, and sedulously schemes to render detection impossible. All that we should require of circumstantial evidence is that there shall be positive proof of the facts from which the inference of guilt is to be drawn, and that that inference is the only one which can reasonably be drawn from those facts.

The two questions which, upon all the circumstances detailed in the evidence, the jury had to pass upon in coming to their verdict were, in the first order, whether the deceased came to her death by morphine poisoning, and, having determined that in the affirmative, then whether the defendant was guilty of the charge of having administered it to her with a deliberate intent to cause her death thereby. The extent of the case developed by the prosecution, some peculiar features of the evidence, and some apparent difficulties suggested in connection with it, the gravity of the accusation[136 N.Y. 430]under which the accused lay, and the responsibility imposed upon us by the statute in capital cases, seem to me to demand, for a clearer understanding of the correctness of the judgment, a somewhat extended review of the facts elicited upon the trial as they relate to each branch of the case.

Helen Potts, the deceased, had entered Miss Comstock's boarding school, in New York city, in December, 1890, and was 19 years of age at the time of her death. On Saturday, January 31, 1891, in the evening, she was with Miss Day, the principal of the school, in the sitting room, engaged in conversation and in reading. She was and had been in good health, and seemed very cheerful and happy. About 10 o'clock Miss Day retired, and a few minutes later the deceased also retired to her room. Her roommates—three young girls—returned from a concert at about half past 10 o'clock. The deceased awaked a few minutes after they came into the room, and talked with them. She said that she felt as if she was going to die; that she felt a choking sensation, and could not swallow; that she felt numb. She also spoke of having experienced pleasant symptoms, and of having had ‘such lovely dreams that she wished they would go on forever.’ After they had gone to bed, they were awakened by the moans of the deceased. One of them arose, and with her hands rubbed her friend's head; but the deceased said she could not feel the rubbing. The moans continuing, and the breathing becoming loud and hard, Miss Day was called in about midnight. She tried to lift the deceased; found her unable to move, and unconscious; and immediately sent for Dr. Fowler, the physician of the school. He came in about 15 minutes, and was followed by an assistant physician, Dr. Baner. The deceased was found in a state of profound coma, very cold and pale, and the surface of the skin was pale and blue, and covered with profuse perspiration. There were very labored respirations, of about two a minute, with a distinct interval between the inspiration and the expiration. The pupils of the eyes were symmetrically contracted to an almost imperceptible point, and there [136 N.Y. 431]was no sensitiveness of the surface of the eyeballs. There was an entire inability for any voluntary motion whatever. The two physicians immediately proceeded to apply remedies. During the night they kept up artificial respiration by certain movements of the arms. They gave injections of black coffee, and hypodermic injections of atropine, caffeine, whisky, and digitalis. They used electricity and oxygen gas, but feared to use the stomach pump, believing, because of the very labored respirations, which had become reduced to one in two minutes, that the use of it would destroy life. No such change

[33 N.E. 68]

was indicated as had been hoped for in the use of atropine, and the only betterment apparent occurred after some three hours of work, when the respirations became more frequent. This improved condition lasted only about half an hour, when a relapse occurred, and the respirations decreased to only one in two minutes and a quarter. The patient gradually sank until 11 o'clock on Sunday morning, February 1st, when she died. Towards morning, the attendant physicians had called in Dr. Kerr, another physician, to aid them. The symptoms of the deceased caused Dr. Fowler to think the case one of poisoning by morphine or opium. In the room was found an empty pill box, bearing upon its label the defendant's initials, ‘C. W. H., medical student;’ and Dr. Fowler, having sent for defendant early in the morning, asked him about it. He was told it had contained capsules, each filled with about four grains and one sixth of a grain of sulphate of quinine and one sixth of a grain of sulphate of morphine. Dr. Fowler told him that one sixth of a grain, or even one grain, of morphine, could not have produced the condition; that it was one of the most profound cases of opium poisoning he had ever witnessed, and advised him to go at once to the druggist, to see if any mistake had been committed in reversing the proportions of the drugs. This the defendant pretended to do, reporting shortly afterwards that the medicine had been prepared exactly according to the prescription, which was written by him.

I have thus related the occurrences covering the period of [136 N.Y. 432]time between the retirement of the deceased, in apparent good health and spirits, and her death; being some 13 hours. In the account of her condition, of her various...

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95 practice notes
  • People v. Geraci
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals
    • March 28, 1995
    ...367, 292 N.Y.S.2d 861, 239 N.E.2d 617; accord, People v. Barnes, 50 N.Y.2d 375, 380, 429 N.Y.S.2d 178, 406 N.E.2d 1071; People v. Harris, 136 N.Y. 423, 33 N.E. 65; McCormick, Evidence § 185, at 543, n. 17 [Cleary 3d ed.]. Further, given the inherently surreptitious nature of witness tamperi......
  • People v. Ely
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals
    • December 18, 1986
    ...was pending. They rely upon People v. Scott, 153 N.Y. 40, 46 N.E. 1028, People v. Buchanan, 145 N.Y. 1, 39 N.E. 846 and People v. Harris, 136 N.Y. 423, 33 N.E. 65. In each of those cases, however, as well as in People v. Benham, 160 N.Y. 402, 55 N.E. 11, the purported motive for the murder ......
  • U.S. v. Day, Nos. 77-2020
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • February 14, 1979
    ...481, 504; Commonwealth v. Pomeroy, 117 Mass. 143; Murphy v. People, 63 N.Y. 590, 594; Kennedy v. People, 39 N.Y. 245; People v. Harris, 136 N.Y. 423, 33 N.E. 65; Commonwealth v. Abbott, 130 Mass. 472. (Quoted also in 2 Wigmore on Evidence, Supra at The fact that the testimony also had a ten......
  • Battles v. State
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Texas. Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas
    • November 30, 1910
    ...State v. Madigan, 57 Minn. 425, 59 N. W. 490. See, also, State v. Kent, 5 N. D. 516, 67 N. W. 1052, 35 L. R. A. 518; People v. Harris, 136 N. Y. 423, 33 N. E. 65; Willingham v. State, 33 Tex. Cr. R. 98, 25 S. W. 424; State v. Seymour, 94 Iowa, 699, 63 N. W. 661; Commonwealth v. Corkin, 136 ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
95 cases
  • People v. Geraci
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals
    • March 28, 1995
    ...367, 292 N.Y.S.2d 861, 239 N.E.2d 617; accord, People v. Barnes, 50 N.Y.2d 375, 380, 429 N.Y.S.2d 178, 406 N.E.2d 1071; People v. Harris, 136 N.Y. 423, 33 N.E. 65; McCormick, Evidence § 185, at 543, n. 17 [Cleary 3d ed.]. Further, given the inherently surreptitious nature of witness tamperi......
  • People v. Ely
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals
    • December 18, 1986
    ...was pending. They rely upon People v. Scott, 153 N.Y. 40, 46 N.E. 1028, People v. Buchanan, 145 N.Y. 1, 39 N.E. 846 and People v. Harris, 136 N.Y. 423, 33 N.E. 65. In each of those cases, however, as well as in People v. Benham, 160 N.Y. 402, 55 N.E. 11, the purported motive for the murder ......
  • U.S. v. Day, Nos. 77-2020
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • February 14, 1979
    ...481, 504; Commonwealth v. Pomeroy, 117 Mass. 143; Murphy v. People, 63 N.Y. 590, 594; Kennedy v. People, 39 N.Y. 245; People v. Harris, 136 N.Y. 423, 33 N.E. 65; Commonwealth v. Abbott, 130 Mass. 472. (Quoted also in 2 Wigmore on Evidence, Supra at The fact that the testimony also had a ten......
  • Battles v. State
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Texas. Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas
    • November 30, 1910
    ...State v. Madigan, 57 Minn. 425, 59 N. W. 490. See, also, State v. Kent, 5 N. D. 516, 67 N. W. 1052, 35 L. R. A. 518; People v. Harris, 136 N. Y. 423, 33 N. E. 65; Willingham v. State, 33 Tex. Cr. R. 98, 25 S. W. 424; State v. Seymour, 94 Iowa, 699, 63 N. W. 661; Commonwealth v. Corkin, 136 ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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