United States v. Wood
39 U.S. 430 (1840)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Wood, 39 U.S. 14 Pet. 430 430 (1840)

United States v. Wood

39 U.S. (14 Pet.) 430

Syllabus

The defendant was indicted for perjury in falsely taking and swearing "the owner's oath, in cases where goods have been actually purchased," as prescribed by the fourth section of the supplementary collection law of the first of March, 1823. The perjury was charged to have been committed in April, 1837, at the custom house in New York, on the importation of certain woolen goods in the ship Sheridan. The indictment charged the defendant with having intentionally suppressed the true cost of the goods, with intent to defraud the United States. 2. Charging the perjury in swearing to the truth of the invoice produced by him at the time of entry of the goods, the invoice being false, &c. It appeared by the evidence that the goods mentioned in the entry had been bought by the defendant from John Wood, his father, of Saddleworth, England. No witness was produced by the United States to prove that the value or cost of the goods was greater than that for which they were entered at the custom house in New York. The evidence of this, offered by the prosecution, was the invoice book of John Wood and thirty-five original letters from the defendant to John Wood between 1834 and 1837 showing a combination between John Wood and the defendant to defraud the United States by invoicing and entering goods at less than their actual cost, that this combination comprehended the goods imported in the Sheridan, and that the goods received by that ship bad been entered by the defendant, he knowing that they had cost more than the prices at which he had

entered them. This evidence was objected to on the part of the defendant as not competent proof to convict the defendant of the crime of perjury, and that if an inference of guilt could be derived from such proof, it was an inference from circumstances, not sufficient as the best legal testimony to warrant a conviction. Held that in order to a conviction, it was not necessary on the part of the prosecution to produce a living witness if the jury should believe from the written testimony that the defendant made a false and corrupt oath when he entered the goods.

The cases in which a living witness to the corpus delicti of the defendant in a prosecution for perjury may be dispensed with are all such where a person charged with a perjury by false swearing to a fact directly disproved by documentary or written testimony springing from himself, with circumstances showing the corrupt intent; in cases where the perjury charged is contradicted by a public record, proved to have been well known to the defendant when he took the oath, the oath only being proved to have been taken; in cases where the party is charged with taking an oath contrary to what he must necessarily have known to be the truth and the false swearing can be proved by his own letters relating to the fact sworn to, or by other written testimony existing and being found in the possession of the defendant and which has been treated by him as containing the evidence of the fact recited in it.

The letters of the defendant showing his knowledge of the actual cost of the goods which had been falsely entered by him are the best evidence which can be given. This evidence is good under the general principle that a man's own acts, conduct, and declarations, when voluntary, are always admissible in evidence against him. If the letters of the defendant showed that the invoice book of the vendor of the goods, containing au invoice of the goods enumerated in the invoice to which the defendant had sworn the owner's oath, in which book the goods were priced higher in the sale of them to the defendant, recognized the book as containing the true invoice, his admission supersedes the necessity of other proof to establish the real price given by him for the goods, and the letters and invoice book, in connection, preponderate against the oath taken by the defendant, making a living witness to the corpus delicti charged in the indictment unnecessary.

The rule is that secondary or inferior shall not be substituted for evidence of a higher nature which the case admits of. The reason of that rule is that an attempt to substitute the inferior for the higher implies that the higher would give a different aspect to the case of the party introducing the lesser. "The ground of the rule is a suspicion of fraud." But before the rule is applied, the nature of the case must be considered, to make a right application of it, and if it shall be seen that the fact to be proved is an act

Page 39 U. S. 431

of the defendant, which from its nature can be concealed from all others except him whose cooperation was necessary before the act could be complete, then the admissions and declarations of the defendant, either in writing or to others, in relation to the act become evidence.

The defendant was indicted under the revenue collection laws for the crime of perjury, alleged in the indictment to have been committed by him in swearing to the matters required to be stated in the "owner's oath, in cases where goods, wares, or merchandise have been actually purchased," prescribed by the fourth section of the act supplementary to and to amend an act entitled "An act to regulate the Collection of Duties on Imports and Tonnage, passed 2 March, 1799, and for other purposes," approved March 21, 1823; that oath having been taken by him on the twentieth day of April, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-seven, upon the importation of woolen goods received by him, in the ship Sheridan from Liverpool and entered by him on the said twentieth day of April as the owner thereof at the custom house in the City of New York.

The indictment contained two counts, the first relating to the entry referred to in the oath and the second to the invoice produced and exhibited at the time of making the oath and referred to therein. In each count there were several assignments of perjury, charging in substance that the actual cost of the goods in question was not truly stated in the said entry and invoice, that the said goods had in fact and within the knowledge of the defendant cost more than the prices stated in the said entry and invoice, and that in entering said goods he had intentionally concealed and suppressed the true cost thereof with intent to defraud the United States.

In the progress of the trial it appeared that the goods in question had been shipped to the defendant by his father, John Wood, of Saddleworth, England, in March, 1837, and that in the invoice produced by the defendant at the time of the entry and referred to in the oath, the goods in question were represented to have been bought by the defendant of said John Wood.

It also appeared that for several years before and for some time after the importation by the Sheridan, the defendant had been in the habit of receiving woolen goods from his said father which were entered by the defendant at the custom house in the City of New York upon the oath of defendant as owner and upon the production of invoices representing the goods to have been sold to the defendant by the said John Wood.

One package out of every invoice of the goods entered by defendant, including the goods in question, had been inspected by the officers of customs, and all the packages in each invoice had been admitted at the cost prices stated in the invoices, and the duties on such cost price duly paid on the same.

It appeared from the testimony of the inspectors of the customs

Page 39 U. S. 432

that the packages designated for inspection, according to their examination and judgment, were not valued in the invoices beyond the actual cost of similar goods imported by other persons.

No witnesses were produced on the part of the prosecution to testify to the actual cost of the goods in question at the time and place when and where they were purchased. But the counsel for the United States, to prove the charge in the indictment, to-wit, that the goods in question actually cost, to the knowledge of the defendant, more than the prices stated in the invoice, offered and proved certain documentary evidence consisting of an invoice book of the above named John Wood and of thirty-five original letters from the defendant, Samuel R. Wood, to the said John Wood, written between April, 1834, and December, 1837, and it was alleged on the part of the prosecution that this proof disclosed a combination between Samuel R. Wood and John Wood to defraud the United States by invoicing and entering the goods shipped at less than their actual cost, and also disclosed that this combination extended to the shipment by the Sheridan, and that the goods received by that vessel had cost, as defendant knew when he entered the same, more than the prices stated in the invoice produced and in the entry made by him.

The counsel for the defendant objected to the competency of such proof to convict of the crime stated in the indictment and insisted that even if an inference of guilt could be derived from such proof, it was an inference from circumstances not sufficient as the best legal testimony to warrant a conviction.

That the legal testimony required to convict of perjury in this case was the testimony of at least one living witness to disprove the truth of the defendant's oath as to the actual cost of the goods, at the time and place of exportation.

That until such proof was adduced, the documentary evidence produced by the counsel of the United States did not constitute the legal evidence upon which the defendant could be convicted of the perjury charged in the indictment.

The question being discussed, the judges were divided in opinion on the point:

"Whether it was necessary, in order to convict the defendant of the crime charged in the indictment, to produce on the part of the prosecution at least one living witness, corroborated by another witness or by circumstances, to contradict the oath of the defendant."

Which point, upon which the disagreement happened, was stated under the direction of the said court at the request of the counsel for the parties in the cause and was certified into the Supreme Court of the United States pursuant to the act in such case made and provided.

Page 39 U. S. 436

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