People v. Webster

Citation139 N.Y. 73,34 N.E. 730
Decision Date03 October 1893
CourtNew York Court of Appeals


Appeal from supreme court, general term, first department.

Burton C. Webster was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree, and, from a judgment of the general term (22 N. Y. Supp. 634) affirming the conviction, defendant appeals. Affirmed.

William F. Howe, (Howe & Hummel, of counsel,) for appellant.

De Lancey Nicoll, Dist. Atty., (Henry B. B. Stapler, Asst. Dist. Atty., of counsel,) for the People.


The defendant was tried at the New York oyer and terminer upon an indictment charging him with the crime of murder in the first degree, in killing Charles E. Goodwin on August 2, 1891. The jury convicted him of manslaughter in the first degree, and he was sentenced to imprisonment for the term of 19 years. He admitted the act of homicide, but pleaded that it was justifiable on the ground of self-defense. The defendant and deceased occupied rooms upon the same floor of the Percival flat, in Forty Second street, New York city. The latter was unmarried, and the former was cohabiting with a woman with whom a marriage ceremony had not been solemnized, but he claimed that a civil contract of marriage had been entered into between them in the month of January of the same year. It appears from his admissions on the trial that he had previously married another woman, and it was not shown that the former marriage had been, in any lawful manner, dissolved. The defendant's version of the homicide was that upon the evening of its occurrence he came to his rooms, and found his wife, who was then pregnant, attended by one Fannie Romaine, a servant in the employ of the janitor of the flat; that she seemed to be ill, and during their conversation she complained to him about the conduct of the deceased, stating that he had made improper advances to her, and indecently exposed his person in her presence, and in other ways behaved in an unbecoming manner, and that while the defendant was a way she dare not go into the hall, through fear of encountering him, and that her present sickness, which was likely to result in a premature birth, was caused by his annoyances. While they were talking, the deceased knocked at the door, which was opened by the defendant, and the former, apparently surprised at finding him in, addressed him with an oath, and struck at him with his hand. just grazing the face, and causing a slight scratch, and then retreated to his own room, 49 feet distant, where he was followed by the defendant, who entered the room, and remonstrated with him about his conduct; that the deceased greeted the defendant with oaths and curses, and seized a cuspidor, and was in the act of throwing it at him, when, believing that he was in imminent peril of his life, he drew a pistol, and shot him in a vital part, from which death ensued in a few hours. The defendant's wife and the woman Romaine were witnesses in his behalf. They claim to have immediately followed him to the deceased's room, and to have witnessed the homicide, and they gave substantially the same account as the defendant of the occurrence. The people challenged the truth of the testimony of these three witnesses for the defense, and insisted that it was fabricated in every material respect, and that it was the product of a conspiracy to shield the defendant from the consequences of his crime by falsehood and perjury. The theory of the prosecution was that the defendant deliberately went to the deceased's room for the purpose of killing him, and found him engaged in writing a letter, and, without any lawful provocation, instantly shot him. This view was supported by the dying declaration of Goodwin, and by many circumstances of a most convincing character. It is not the province of this court to decide between these conflicting theories. It is sufficient that there was some evidence to support both, and it was the office of the jury to say which had been established by satisfactory proof, or whether each might not be partly true. Nor can we determine the grounds upon which they rested their verdict. We are bound to assume it was the result of conclusions or inferences legitimately drawn from some competent evidence in the case, but it is beyond our ken to discern the particular process by which they arrived at their verdict. It cannot, therefore, be said that because the defendant was not convicted of the crime of murder in the first degree, but of a lesser offense, the jury disregarded the evidence of the prosecution, and gave credence only to that of the defendant's witnesses. The facts upon which the people relied may have given rise to different inferences in their minds than those which the district attorney sought to draw from them, and they may have accepted in part the account of the homicide given by the defendant, and rejected other portions, which they deemed unworthy of belief. The only thing which can properly be affirmed of their verdict is that they found that the defendant killed the deceased in the heat of passion by means of a dangerous weapon, and not with premeditation or deliberation, or with an intent to effect his death, and that they rejected the claim of the defendant that he did it in lawful self-defense. It follows that if errors were committed in the reception of evidence, materially affecting the credibility of the defendant's witnesses, or in the comments of the court upon the trial, they must be reviewed and considered, for we are unable to say that if they existed they did not prejudice the defendant, or affect the verdict of the jury.

The first exception to be noticed relates to the reasons given by the court for the admission and rejection of certain evidence in regard to the conduct of the deceased to wards the defendant's wife, and the communications made to the defendant by her with respect to such conduct. The defendant was permitted to show what she had told him upon this subject upon the evening of the homicide, and previously, but he was not allowed to prove, by his wife or others, that the deceased had actually been guilty of the offenses complained of. There was a prolonged struggle between the prosecution and the defense as to where the line should be drawn, in determining the question of the admissibility of this evidence. In disposing of this question the remarks were made, to which the exceptions have been taken. The trial judge correctly defined, in plain and vigorous language, the rule of law which should control in the reception and application of such evidence. He stated, in substance, that no conduct of the deceased justified the defendant in murdering him,-clearly refering to the alleged improper and lascivious behavior of the deceased towards the defendant's wife,-and that a man could not justify the killing of another because he disapproved of his previous conduct. When the wife was under examination, a discussion arose whether she should be permitted to state what the deceased did when the defendant was not present, and the court, in excluding it, said that she might state what she told the defendant that the deceased had done, but could not state whether the deceased had in fact done the things referred to; that it was entirely immaterial whether he had or not; that, if he had so misbehaved himself, it was no justification for murder, and the defendant could not escape the consequences of his own act because of any act of the deceased done prior to the killing; that the law of this atate did not authorize or justify any man in taking the law into his own hands, and slaying another, because he had, or imagines he has, received an insult; that the witness might state any communication she made to the defendant at or about the time of, or shortly prior to, the occurrence, as to anything that the deceased did; that the only material thing was the communicaton, and it was entirely immaterial whether the things disclosed actually happened. Substantially the same remarks were repeated when the defendant was examined, and permitted to state what his wife had told him about the deceased, and the court then also stated that the jury must not consider the question whether the communications made by the wife were true; that they were admitted only to show the condition of the defendant's mind when he fired the shot. It is not now claimed that any error was committed in the reception or rejection of evidence upon this point, but it is insisted that these remarks were in the nature of a judicial criticism upon the defendant's case; that they were unfair and prejudicial to the defense, and must have conveyed to the jury the impression that the trial court believed that the defendant was guilty of the crime of murder, and in this way affected a substantial right of the accused. We do not think the language of the learned trial judge is fairly susceptible of such an interpretation. It was no more than a clear-cut statement of a most pertinent legal principle. The charge was murder; the defense, a justification; and the court merely said, in terms not liable to misconstruction, that no wrong done by the deceased to the wife was available as a justification, but, if the defendant believed that the wrong had been committed, ...

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