Sparf v. United States

Decision Date21 January 1895
Docket NumberNo. 613,613
Citation156 U.S. 51,39 L.Ed. 343,15 S.Ct. 273
PartiesSPARF et al. v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

F. J. Kierce, for plaintiffs in error.

Asst. Atty. Gen. Conrad, for the United States.

Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the court.

The plaintiffs in error and Thomas St. Clair were indicted jointly for the murder of Maurice Fitzgerald upon the high seas, on board of an American vessel, the bark Hesper, as set forth in the indictment mentioned in St. Clair v. U. S., 154 U. S. 134, 14 Sup. Ct. 1002. On motion of the accused, it was ordered that they be tried separately. St. Clair was tried, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to suffer the punishment of death. Subsequently the order for separate trials was set aside, and the present defendants were tried together, and both were convicted of murder. A motion for a new trial having been overruled, a like sentence was imposed upon them.

The general facts of this case do not differ from those proved in St. Clair's Case, and some of the questions arising upon the present assignments of error were determined in that case. Only such questions will be here examined as were not properly persented or did not arise in the other case, and are of sufficient importance to require notice at our hands.

In the night of January 13, 1893, Fitzgerald, the second mate of the Hesper, was found to be missing, and it was believed that he had been killed, and his body thrown overboard. Suspicion being directed to St. Clair, Sparf, and Hansen, part of the crew of the Hesper, as participants in the killing, they were put in irons, by order of Capt. Sodergren, master of the vessel, and were so kept during the voyage from the locality of the supposed murder to Tahiti, an island in the South Pacific, belonging to the French government. They were taken ashore by the United States consul at that island, and subsequently were sent, with others, to San Francisco, on the vessel Tropic Bird.

At the trial, Capt. Sodergren, a witness for the government, was asked whether or not after the 13th day of January, and before reaching Tahiti, which was more than 1,000 miles from the locality of the alleged murder, he had any conversation with the defendant Hansen about the killing of Fitzgeraid. This question having been answered by the witness in the affirmative, he was fully examined as to the circumstances under which the conversation was held. He said, among other things, that no one was present but Hansen and himself. Being asked to repeat the conversation referred to, the accused, by the counsel who had been appointed by the court to represent them, objected to the question as 'irrelevant, immaterial, and incompetent, and upon the ground that any statement made by Hansen was not and could not be voluntary.' The objection was overruled, and the defendants duly excepted. The witness then stated what Hansen had said to him. That evidence tended strongly to show that Fitzgerald was murdered pursuant to a plan formed between St. Clair, Sparf, and Hansen; that all three actively participated in the murder; and that the crime was committed under the most revolting circumstances.

Thomas Green and Edward Larsen, two of the crew of the Hesper, were also witnesses for the government. They were permitted to state what Hansen said to them during the voyage from Tahiti to San Francisco. This evidence was also objected to as irrelevant, immaterial, and incompetent, and upon the further ground that the statement the accused was represented to have made was not voluntary. But the objection was overruled, and an exception taken.

Upon the conclusion of the evidence, the defendants requested certain instructions, which the court refused to give, and they excepted to its action in that particular, as well as to certain parts of the charge to the jury.

1. The declarations of Hansen, as detailed by Sodergren, Green, and Larsen, were clearly admissible in evidence against him. There was no ground on which their exclusion could have been sustained. In reference to this proof, the court charged the jury that if they believed from the evidence that Green and Larsen, or either of them, were accomplices in the commission of the acts charged in the indictment, they should act upon their testimony with great caution, subjecting it to a careful examination, in the light of all the other evidence, and ought not to convict upon their testimony alone, unless satisfied beyond reasonable doubt of its truth; that if Larsen and Green, or either of them, or any other person, were induced to testify by promises of immunity from punishment, or by hope held out from any one that it would go easier with them in case they disclosed their confederates, or in case they implicated some one else in the crime, this must be taken into consideration in determining the weight to be given to their testimony, and should be closely scrutinized; that the confessions of a prisoner out of court and in custody, made to persons having no authority to examine him, should be acted upon and received with great care and caution; that words are often misreported through ignorance, inattention, or malice, are extremely liable to misconstruction, are rarely sufficient to warrant conviction, as well on account of the great danger of mistake upon the part of the witness as of the fact that the mind of the prisoner himself may be oppressed by his situation or influenced by motives of hope or fear to make an untrue confession; that, in considering the weight to be given to the alleged confessions of the defendants, the jury were to consider their condition at the time they were made, the fact that they had been charged with crime, and were in custody; and that the jury were to determine whether those confessions were voluntary, or whether any inducements were held out to them by any one. The defendants did not offer themselves as witnesses, and the court took care to say that a person charged with crime is under no obligation to testify in his own behalf, and that his neglect to testify did not create any presumption whatever against him.

So far as the record discloses, these confessions were entirely free and voluntary, uninfluenced by any hope of reward or fear of punishment. In Hopt v. People, 110 U. S. 574, 584, 4 Sup. Ct. 202, it was said: 'While some of the adjudged cases indicate distrust of confessions which are not judicial, it is certain, as observed by Baron Parke, in Reg. v. Baldry, 2 Denison, Cr. Cas. 430, 445, that the rule against their admissibility has been sometimes carried too far, and in its application justice and common sense have too frequently been sacrificed at the shrine of mercy. A confession, if freely and voluntarily made, is evidence of the most satisfactory character. Such a confession, said Eyre, C. B. (King v. Warickshall, 1 Leach, 263), 'is deserving of the highest credit, because it is presumed to flow from the strongest sense of guilt, and therefore it is admitted as proof of the crime to which it refers.' Elementary writers of authority concur in saying that while, from the nature of such evidence, it must be subjected to careful scrutiny, and received with great caution, a deliberate voluntary confession of guilt is among the most effectual proofs in the law, and constitutes the strongest evidence against the party making it that can be given of the facts stated in such confession.'

Counsel for the accused insist that there cannot be a voluntary statement, a free, open confession, while a defendant is confined and in irons, under an accusation of having committed a capital offense. We have not been referred to any authority in support of that position. It is true that the fact of a prisoner being in custody at the time he makes a confession is a circumstance not to be overlooked, because it bears upon the inquiry whether the confession was voluntarily made, or was extorted by threats or violence, or made under the influence of fear. But confinement or imprisonment is not in itself sufficient to justify the exclusion of a confession, if it appears to have been voluntary and was not obtained by putting the prisoner in fear or by promises. Whart. Cr. Ev. (9th Ed.) §§ 661, 663, and authorities cited. The import of Sodergren's evidence was that, when Hansen manifested a desire to speak to him on the subject of the killing, the latter said he did not wish to hear it, but 'to keep it until the right time came, and then tell the truth.' But this was not offering to the prisoner an inducement to make a confession. Littledale, J., well observed in Rex v. Court, 7 Car. & P. 487, that telling a man to be sure to tell the truth is not advising him to confess anything of which he is really not guilty. See, also Queen v. Reeves, L. R. 1 Cr. Cas. 362. Nothing said to Hansen prior to the confession was at all calculated to put him in fear, or to excite any hope of his escaping punishment by telling what he knew or witnessed or did in reference to the killing.

The deciarations of Hansen after the killing, as detailed by Green and Larsen, were also admissible in evidence against Sparf, because they appear to have been made in his presence, and under such circumstances as would warrant the inference that he would naturally have contradicted them if he did not assent to their truth.

But the confession and declarations of Hansen to Sodergren after the killing of Fitzgerald were incompetent as evidence against Sparf. St. Clair, Hansen, and Sparf were charged jointly with the murder of Fitzgerald. What Hansen said after the deed had been fully consummated, and not on the occasion of the killing, and in the presence only of the witness, was clearly incompetent against his codefendant, Sparf, however strongly it tended to connect the latter with the commission of the crime. If the evidence made a case of conspiracy to kill and murder, the rule is settled that 'after the conspiracy has come to an end, and whether by success or by...

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