United States v. Holmes
18 U.S. 412 (1820)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Holmes, 18 U.S. 5 Wheat. 412 412 (1820)

United States v. Holmes

18 U.S. (5 Wheat.) 412

Syllabus

The courts of the United States have jurisdiction under the Act of 30 April, 1790, c. 36, of murder or robbery committed on the high seas, although not committed on board a vessel belonging to citizens of the United States, as if she had no national character, but was held by pirates or persons not lawfully sailing under the flag of any foreign nation.

In the same case and under the same act, if the offense be committed on board of a foreign vessel by a citizen of the United States or on board a vessel of the United States by a foreigner or by a citizen or foreigner on board of a piratical vessel, the offense is equally cognizable by the courts of the United States.

It makes no difference in such a case and under the same act whether the offense was committed on board of a vessel or in the sea, as by throwing the deceased overboard and drowning him, or by shooting, him when in the sea though he was not thrown overboard.

The prisoners were indicted at the Circuit Court of Massachusetts at the October term of said court, 1818, for that the prisoners being citizens of the United States, on the fourth day of July then last past, with force and arms, upon the high seas, out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, in and on board a certain schooner or vessel, the name whereof being to the jurors unknown, in and upon a person known, and commonly called by the name of Reed, a mariner, in and on board said vessel, in the peace of God and of the said United States, then and there being piratically, &c., did make an assault, and that they, the said William Holmes, Thomas Warrington,

Page 18 U. S. 413

otherwise called Warren Fawcett and Edward Rosewain, with a certain steel dagger, &c., which he, the said William Holmes, in his right hand, then and there had and held, the said person commonly called Reed, in and upon the arms and breast of him, the said Reed, upon the high seas, and on board the vessel aforesaid, and out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, piratically, &c., did strike and thrust, giving to the said person commonly called Reed, in and upon the arms and breast of him, the said Reed, upon the high seas, in and on board the vessel aforesaid, and out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, piratically, &c., in and upon the said arms and breast of him, the said Reed, several grievous wounds, and did then and there in and on board the vessel aforesaid, upon the high seas, and out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, piratically, &c., him, the said person commonly called Reed, cast and threw from out of said vessel into the sea, and plunge, sink, and drown him, in the sea aforesaid, of which said grievous wounds, casting, throwing, plunging, sinking, and drowning, the said person commonly called Reed, upon the high seas aforesaid, out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, then and there instantly died.

And so the jurors aforesaid, upon their oath aforesaid, do say that the said William Holmes, &c., him, the said person commonly called Reed, then and there, upon the high seas as aforesaid, and out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, piratically, &c., did kill and murder, against the peace and dignity of the said United States, and against the form of the

Page 18 U. S. 414

statute of the said United States in such case made and provided, &c. Upon which indictment the prisoners were found guilty of the offense charged therein. And thereupon the counsel for the prisoners moved the court for a new trial for the misdirection of the court upon the points of law which had been raised at the trial. And upon arguing the said motion for a new trial, the several questions occurred before the circuit court which are stated in the opinion of this Court, upon which the opinions of the judges of the circuit court were opposed.

From the evidence it appeared that a vessel, apparently Spanish (whose national character, however, was not distinctly proved by any documentary evidence or by the testimony of any person conusant of its character), was captured by two privateers from Buenos Ayres, a prize crew put on board, and the prisoners were of that prize crew. One of the prisoners was a citizen of the United States, and the other prisoners were foreigners. The crime was committed by the prisoners on the person whose death was charged in the indictment, by drowning him on the high seas, he being, at the time, a prize master of the captured vessel, and thrown or driven overboard by the prisoners. There was no proof who were the owners of the privateers, nor where they resided, nor what were the ships' papers or documents, nor where nor at what time they were armed or equipped for war. The privateers had been at Buenos Ayres and openly kept a rendezvous there and shipped the crews there. The crews consisted chiefly of Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Americans.

Page 18 U. S. 415

The commander of one of the privateers was by birth a citizen of the United States and had a family domiciled at Baltimore. The commander of the other was by birth an Englishman, but had long been domiciled at Baltimore. There was no proof that either of them had ever lived at Buenos Ayres or been naturalized there. All the witnesses agreed that both the privateers were built at Baltimore. They had been at Buenos Ayres before their sailing on this cruise but a short time -- one about six weeks, the other a few days only.

And the said judges being so opposed in opinion upon the questions aforesaid, the same were then and there, at the request of the district attorney for the United States, stated, under the direction of the judges, and ordered by the court to be certified under the seal of the court to this Court, to be finally decided.

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