Hall v. United States
150 U.S. 76 (1893)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Hall v. United States, 150 U.S. 76 (1893)

Hall v. United States

No. 822.

Submitted October 19, 1893

Decided October 30, 1893

150 U.S. 76

Syllabus

Upon a trial for murder in Arkansas, on cross-examination of witnesses to the defendant's character, and by his own testimony to meet evidence that he had since fled to Mississippi, it appeared that he had killed a Negro in Mississippi two years before, and had since been tried and acquitted there. The district attorney, in his closing argument to the jury, said

"we know, from reading the newspapers and magazines, that trials in the State of Mississippi of a white man for killing a negro are farces. The defendant came from Mississippi with his hands stained with the blood of a Negro."

And he added other like expressions and declarations that the killing of a Negro in Mississippi, for which the defendant had been tried and acquitted there, was murder. To all these declarations, expressions, and arguments of the district attorney the defendant at the time objected, and, his objections being overruled by the court, alleged exceptions. Held, that he was entitled to a new trial.

This was an indictment found at August term, 1891, of the Circuit Court for the Western District of Arkansas against Robert M. Hall for the murder of James Yates by shooting him with a gun at Choctaw Nation in the Indian Country in that district on August 4, 1891.

At the trial at August term, 1892, before the district judge,

Page 150 U. S. 77

it was proved, and not denied, that the defendant, being then twenty-two years of age, shot and killed Yates at the time and place alleged, and that both were white men. The United States introduced evidence tending to show that the killing was murder, and that the defendant had come from Mississippi, and had been in the Indian Country for about four months before the killing. The defendant introduced testimony tending to explain the circumstances of the killing and to show that it was not murder.

The United States, against the defendant's objection and exception, were permitted by the court, for the purpose of showing that the defendant fled from the Indian Country after killing Yates, to put in evidence a warrant issued by a United States judge in Mississippi, dated March 2, 1892, reciting the commitment of the defendant by a United States commissioner "upon the charge of murder on an indictment from the Circuit Court of the United States for the Western District of Arkansas," and ordering him to be taken and delivered to the United States marshal for this district.

Witnesses called by the defendant testified that his character as a peaceful and law-abiding man was good. On cross-examination of these witnesses, the district attorney, against the defendant's objection and exception, was permitted by the court, for the purpose of testing their knowledge of his reputation, to ask them whether they had heard that he had killed a Negro in Mississippi before he came to the Indian Country. The only witness who admitted that he had heard of the killing of the Negro by the defendant testified, on reexamination, that he had also heard the he had been acquitted of it.

The defendant, having offered himself as a witness in his own behalf, testified that he went back to Mississippi to stand his trial there in a court of the state in February, 1892, upon a charge of murdering a Negro whom he had killed there in August, 1889, and was thereupon arrested, tried, and acquitted upon that charge, and that, immediately after killing the Negro, he had left Mississippi by the advice of his father, with whom he then lived. This testimony was not objected to by the district attorney nor changed on cross-examination.

Page 150 U. S. 78

One exception taken by the defendant was stated in the bill of exceptions allowed by the court as follows:

"The district attorney, in his closing argument to the jury, made use of the following language:"

"We know what kind of trials they have in the State of Mississippi of a white man for killing a Negro. We know from reading the newspapers and magazines that such trials there are farces. We are not living in Egyptian darkness, but in the light of the nineteenth century. The defendant came from Mississippi with his hands stained with the blood of a Negro, and went to the Indian Country, and in less than four months had slain another man,"

"and other like expressions and declarations that the killing of a Negro in Mississippi, for which the defendant had been tried and acquitted there, was murder, to all of which declarations, expressions, and arguments of the district attorney the defendant at the time objected, but his objections were by the court overruled, and the defendant at the time excepted."

The defendant was convicted of the murder of Yates, as charged in the indictment, and sued out this writ of error under the Act of March 3, 1891, c. 517, § 5, 26 Stat. 827.

Page 150 U. S. 80

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