Stevenson v. United States
162 U.S. 313 (1896)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Stevenson v. United States, 162 U.S. 313 (1896)

Stevenson v. United States

No. 681

Argued March 9, 1896

Decided April 18, 1896

162 U.S. 313




On the trial of a person indicted for murder, although the evidence may appear to the court to be simply overwhelming to show that the killing was in fact murder, and not manslaughter or an act performed in self defense, yet so long as there is evidence relevant to the issue of manslaughter, its credibility and force are for the jury, and cannot be matter of law for the decision of the court.

A review of the evidence at the trial of the defendant (plaintiff in error) in the court below shows that there was error in the refusal of the court of the request of the defendant's counsel to submit the question of manslaughter to the jury.

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 162 U. S. 314

MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM delivered the opinion of the Court.

The plaintiff in error was indicted in the United States circuit court for the Eastern District of Texas at the term commencing on the 20th of November, 1893. The indictment charged the defendant with the crime of murder in killing one Joe Gaines on the 22d of August, 1893, in Pickens County, in the Chickasaw Nation in the Indian Territory, the same being annexed to and constituting a part of the Fifth Circuit, and annexed to and constituting a part of the Eastern District of Texas for judicial purposes. The defendant was tried at the circuit court held for the Eastern District of Texas in April, 1895, and was convicted by the jury of murder as charged in the indictment, and sentenced to be hanged. He then sued out a writ of error from this Court. It will be necessary to notice but one exception taken by counsel for the plaintiff in error upon the trial. After the evidence was in, he requested the court to submit to the jury a charge upon manslaughter,

"but the court refused to submit that issue to the jury, to which action of the court in failing and refusing to submit to the jury such charge the defendant at the time excepted."

The question is whether the court erred in refusing this request. The evidence as to manslaughter need not be uncontradicted or in any way conclusive upon the question. So long as there is some evidence upon the subject, the proper weight to be given it is for the jury to determine. If there were any evidence which tended to show such a state of facts as might bring the crime within the grade of manslaughter, it then became a proper question for the jury to say whether the evidence were true and whether it showed that the crime was manslaughter instead of murder. It is difficult to think of a case of killing by shooting where both men were armed and both in readiness to shoot, and where both did shoot, in which the question would not arise for the jury to answer whether

Page 162 U. S. 315

the killing was murder or manslaughter or a pure act of self-defense. The evidence might appear to the court to be simply overwhelming to show that the killing was in fact murder, and not manslaughter or an act performed in self-defense, and yet so long as there was some evidence relevant to the issue of manslaughter, the credibility and force of such evidence must be for the jury, and cannot be matter of law for the decision of the court.

By § 1035 of the Revised Statutes of the United States, it is enacted that

"in all criminal causes, the defendant may be found guilty of any offense the commission of which is necessarily included in that with which he is charged in the indictment, or may be found guilty of an attempt to commit the offense so charged, provided that each attempt be itself a separate offense."

Under this statute, the defendant charged in the indictment with the crime of murder may be found guilty of the lower grade of crime, viz., manslaughter. There must, of course, be some evidence which tends to bear upon that issue. The jury would not be justified in finding a verdict of manslaughter if there were no evidence upon which to base such a finding, and in that event the court would have the right to instruct the jury to that effect. Sparf v. United States,156 U. S. 51.

The ruling of the learned judge was to the effect that in this case, the killing was either murder or else it was done in the course of self-defense, and that under no view which could possibly be taken of the evidence would the jury be at liberty to find the defendant guilty of manslaughter. The court passed upon the strength, credibility, and tendency of the evidence, and decided as a matter of law what it seems to us would generally be regarded as a question of fact -- viz., whether, under all the circumstances which the jury might from the evidence find existed in the case, the defendant was guilty of murder, or whether he killed the deceased not in self-defense, but unlawfully and unjustly, although without malice. The presence or absence of malice would be the material consideration in the case provided the jury should reject the theory of self-defense, and yet this question of fact

Page 162 U. S. 316

is, under the evidence in the case, determined by the trial court as one of law, and against the defendant

A review of some of the evidence stated in the bill of exceptions is necessary in order to discover whether there was justification for this holding by the learned judge. It may be premised that we do not give very much of the evidence tending to show malice in the defendant, and that which tended to show an intentional and deliberate murder of the deceased by him. We give only so much of the evidence as is necessary to permit an intelligent view of the transaction, and of that portion of the evidence in addition which might be regarded as tending to show that the defendant was only guilty of manslaughter, and not of murder. If there were some appreciable evidence upon that subject, its proper weight and credibility were for the jury.

There was evidence tending to show the following facts: the deceased was a deputy United States marshal. One B. D. Davidson was a lawyer by profession, and a commissioner of the United States for one of the territorial courts. On the 22d of August, 1893, Davidson was at Paul's Valley, in the Indian Territory. He knew the defendant, and he was also acquainted with Joe Gaines, the deceased. Davidson saw the defendant in the evening of that day at his (Davidson's) hotel. A man named George Mitchell had been bound over by Davidson, and had failed to give a proper bond, and Mitchell came to him and asked if he would take John Stevenson, the plaintiff in error, on the bond. Davidson told him he would if Stevenson could justify. Mitchell left, and soon thereafter brought Stevenson around, who told Davidson he had some personal property -- he didn't know what it was, exactly -- but it did not amount to $500 above exemptions and liabilities. Davidson told him he would have to schedule other property, and plaintiff in error thought he ought to take a farm he had, and did not like Davidson's refusal, and went off. That same night, after supper, and about 9 o'clock, while Davidson was talking with other persons, plaintiff in error came to the door and commenced cursing and abusing Davidson, saying, as Davidson testified, "everything he could put

Page 162 U. S. 317

his tongue to." Stevenson left, still cursing, and went south, and he could be heard as he went away cursing and swearing. Gaines, the deceased, soon thereafter came into the room in the hotel where Davidson was, and asked what all "this racket or fuss was about." Davidson told him, and Gaines said, "I will go and arrest him, and stop him." He said he "would arrest him, and hold him until morning," and went out for that purpose. Davidson heard some loud talking on the street soon after, and went out of his house, and saw Gaines and Stevenson and a lady, who he was told was Stevenson's wife, standing on the platform in front of the hotel talking, and Davidson passed by them and went on. He returned to the hotel soon after this, and in about a half hour he heard two shots fired, and Gaines, the deceased, got up and walked across to the north side of the room, where he and Davidson were sitting, and picked up his pistol from a sewing machine, where he always kept it, and said he would go and "get him, and fasten him, and keep him in charge, and not release him any more." He then walked out of the house, and in about two minutes two shots were heard. Davidson then started to go, and someone prevented him. He soon afterwards saw Gaines, the deceased, when brought to the hotel dead. He had two wounds -- one in his arm, the other in the breast. His coat sleeve had the appearance of being powder burned. This is the substance of Davidson's evidence.

Another witness says that soon after Gaines left Davidson's room for the purpose of arresting Stevenson, he (Gaines) and the plaintiff in error were seen together. It was about 9 o'clock, after dark. They were standing on the sidewalk, back of Underwood's drugstore. When the witness first heard Stevenson speak, the latter said: "Don't draw that pistol. If you do, I will cut you." Stevenson and the deceased were standing on the sidewalk then. The witness walked into the middle of the street, and said to Stevenson, "John, put up your knife, and go home, and behave yourself." They then walked over to where the witness was, Stevenson holding with his left hand to Gaines

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