Wilson v. United States

Decision Date17 April 1893
Docket NumberNo. 1284,1284
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Statement by Mr. Justice FIELD:

The defendant below, George E. Wilson, the plaintiff in error here, is a bookseller and publisher, carrying on his business in Chicago, Ill. He was indicted in the United States district court for the northern district of that state for a violation of section 2 of the act of congress of September 26, 1888, (25 St. p. 496,) amending section 3893 of the Revised Statutes, relating to the use of the mails to give information where and by what means obscene and lewd publications might be obtained, and was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in the penitentiary of the state for two years. To reverse that judgment, he has brought this case to this court on writ of error.

The indictment charged, in different counts, that the defendant, by himself and another person, had deposited in the mail at Chicago, for delivery to John Hobart, at O'Fallon, Ill., and Jack Horner, at Collinsville, Ill., a letter and circular giving information where certain designated lewd and obscene books could be obtained. No attempt was made to show that

[Statement of Case from pages 61-62 intentionally omitted] the letter and circular was mailed by the defendant in person, but an attempt was made to show that some other person had done the act at the instigation or request of the defendant, and that he was responsible for it. The defendant did not request to be a witness or offer himself as such, and the district attorney of the United States, in summing up the case to the jury, commented upon the fact that he had not appeared on the stand, as follows:

'They say Wilson is a man of good character. It is a grand thing for a young man in Chicago to be the son of an honest man, because blood will tell. If the father is honest, the chances are the son will be honest too. Men live all their lives to build up a good character, because it is a shield against the attack of infamy. They called two or three witnesses here who testified to this young man's character as being good, so far as they know; but I want to say to you, gentlement of the jury, that, if I am ever charged with a crime, I will not stop by putting witnesses on the stand to testify to my good character, but I will go upon the stand, and hold up my hand before high heaven, and testify to my innocence of the crime.'

To this language of the district attorney the counsel for the defendant excepted, and called the court's attention to it, and the court said: 'Yes, I suppose the counsel should not comment upon the defendant not taking the stand. While the United States court is not governed by the state's statutes, I do not know that it ought to be the subject of comments by counsel,'—to which the district attorney replied as follows: 'I did not mean to refer to it in that light, and I do not intend to refer in a single word to the fact that he did not testify in his own behalf,'—to which the counsel for the defendant thereupon excepted.

The act of congress of March 16, 1878, (20 St. p. 30, c. 37,) provides 'that in the trial of all indictments, informations, complaints, and other proceedings against persons charged with the commission of crimes, offenses, and misdemeanors, in the United States courts, territorial courts, and courtsmartial, and courts of inquiry, in any state or territory, including the District of Columbia, the person so charged shall, at his own request, but not otherwise, be a competent witness; and his failure to make such request shall not create any presumption against him.'

The objections of the defendant's counsel to the language of the district attorney in his argument to the jury in referring to the defendant's failure to appear on the stand as a witness, and testify to his innocence of the charge against him, and to the neglect of the court to forbid and condemn such reference, were embodied in a bill of exceptions, and constitute one of the grounds urged for a reversal of the judgment and the award of a new trial.

C. Stuart Beattie, for plaintiff in error.

Asst. Atty. Gen. Parker, for defendant in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 63-65 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice FIELD, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

The act of congress permitting the defendant in a criminal action to appear as a witness in his own behalf, upon his request, declares, as it will be seen, that his failure to request to be a witness in the case shall not create any presumption against him.

To prevent such presumption being created, comment, especially hostile comment, upon such failure must necessarily be excluded from the jury. The minds of the jurors can only remain unaffected from this circumstance by excluding all reference to it.

At common law no one accused of crime could be compelled to give evidence in a prosecution against himself, nor was he permitted to testify in his own behalf. The accused might rely upon the presumption of the law that he was innocent of the charge, and leave the government to establish his guilt in the best way it could.

This rule, while affording great protection to the accused against unfounded accusation, in many cases deprived him from explaining circumstances tending to create conclusions of his guilt which he could readily have removed if permitted to testify. To relieve him from this embarrassment the law was passed. In mercy to him, he is by the act in question permitted, upon his request, to testify in his own behalf in the case. In a vast number of instances the innocence of the defendant of the charge with which he was confronted has been established.

But the act was framed with a due regard also to those who might prefer to rely upon the presumption of innocence which the law gives to every one, and not wish to be witnesses. It is not every one who can safely venture on the witness stand, though entirely innocent of the charge against him. Excessive timidity, nervousness when facing others and attempting to explain transactions of a suspicious character, and offenses charged against him, will often confuse and embarrass him to such a degree as to increase rather than remove prejudices against him. It is not every one, however honest, who would therefore willingly be placed on the witness stand. The statute, in...

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181 cases
  • People v. Clary
    • United States
    • Michigan Supreme Court
    • June 25, 2013
    ...innocent of the charge, and leav[ing] the government to establish his guilt in the best way it could.” Wilson v. United States, 149 U.S. 60, 65–66, 13 S.Ct. 765, 37 L.Ed. 650 (1893).7 Jurors, however, are “not necessarily sensitive to the ... alternative explanations for a defendant's [prev......
  • People v. Modesto
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    ...not create any presumption against him' (18 U.S.C. § 3481) has been interpreted to exclude any comment. (Wilson v. United States, 149 U.S. 60, 65, 13 S.Ct. 765, 37 L.Ed. 650; Bruno v. United States, 308 U.S. 287, 292-293, 60 S.Ct. 198, 84 L.Ed. 257; Adamson v. People of State of California,......
  • Carlson v. Landon Butterfield v. Zydok
    • United States
    • U.S. Supreme Court
    • March 10, 1952
    ...without bail gave no reasons for the action. 13. See 20 Stat. 30, 18 U.S.C. § 3481, 18 U.S.C.A. § 3481; Wilson v. United States, 149 U.S. 60, 66, 13 S.Ct. 765, 766, 37 L.Ed. 650. See also Blau v. United States, 340 U.S. 159, 71 S.Ct. 223, 95 L.Ed. 14. In a case just decided, the Court of Ap......
  • Tehan v. United States Shott
    • United States
    • U.S. Supreme Court
    • January 19, 1966
    ...20 Stat. 30, as amended, now 18 U.S.C. § 3481; Bruno v. United States, 308 U.S. 287, 60 S.Ct. 198, 84 L.Ed. 257; Wilson v. United States, 149 U.S. 60, 13 S.Ct. 765, 37 L.Ed. 650. 8 In the federal judicial system, the matter was controlled by a statute. See n. 7, supra. 9 See, e.g., Mr. Just......
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6 books & journal articles
  • Finding What Was Lost: Sorting Out the Custodian's Privilege Against Self-incrimination from the Compelled Production of Records
    • United States
    • University of Nebraska - Lincoln Nebraska Law Review No. 77, 2021
    • Invalid date
    ...is as unprivileged asare the documents themselves."). 13. See Hale v. Henkel, 201 U.S. 43, 74 (1906). 14. In Wilson v. United States, 149 U.S. 60 (1893), the Supreme Court described eloquently the rationale for granting a defendant the right not to testify: It is not every one who can safel......
  • "incorporation" of the Criminal Procedure Amendments: the View from the States
    • United States
    • University of Nebraska - Lincoln Nebraska Law Review No. 84, 2021
    • Invalid date
    ...Court quickly interpreted this statute to forbid prosecutors from commenting on a defendant's failure to testify. Wilson v. United States, 149 U.S. 60, 66 (1893). In Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609, 613 (1965), the Court held that the "No Comment Rule" in the federal courts was mandated......
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    • Colorado Bar Association Colorado Lawyer No. 19-8, August 1990
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    ...E.g., Pratt, supra, note 10 at 684. 25. Lakeside, supra, note 5 at 343. 26. Lakeside, supra, note 5 at 343, n.1 (quoting, Wilson v. U.S., 149 U.S. 60 (1893)). 27. Counselman v. Hitchcock, 142 U.S. 547, 562 (1891) (dicta); accord, Tuttle v. People, 79 P. 1035 (Colo. 1905). 28. Supra, note 2.......
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    • United States
    • Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Vol. 85 No. 2, September 1994
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    ...Id. at 321-23. (94) Congress passed the law allowing the accused the right to testify in federal trials in 1878. Wilson v. United States, 149 U.S. 60, 65 (1893) (quoting the Act of Congress of March 16, 1878, ch. 37, 20 Stat. 30). in Britain, the accused was disqualified from interest from ......
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