Bird v. United States,
180 U.S. 356 (1901)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Bird v. United States, 180 U.S. 356 (1901)

Bird v. United States

No. 278

Argued January 21, 1901

Decided February 25, 1901

180 U.S. 356


Bird was indicted for murder. The killing was admitted, but it was claimed to have been done in self-defense. At the trial, a government witness testified

"that, in the month of August, when the defendant, in company with the deceased Hurlin, R. L. Patterson, Naomi Strong, and witness, were going up the Yukon River in a steam launch, towing a barge loaded with their provisions, Hurlin was steering; that the defendant was very disagreeable to all the other persons; that, when they would run into a sandbar, he would curse them; be would say: 'The Dutch sons of bitches don't know where to run it.' On one occasion, they were getting wood on the bank of the river, and Bird got cut and wanted to hit Patterson. Witness didn't remember exactly what was said, but defendant called Patterson a 'son of a bitch,' and told him he would 'hammer the devil out of him,' and witness and the others would not let them fight. And if anything would go wrong, he, defendant, would not curse in front of the witness' and the others' faces, but defendant would be disagreeable all the way along, and would make things very disagreeable."

This evidence was excepted to, and the court held that its only doubt was whether the evidence, though improperly admitted, was of sufficient importance to call for a reversal of the judgment, but it sustained the exception. Afterwards the government, to maintain the issues on its part, offered the following testimony of the witness Scheffler: that, in the latter part of March, 1899, after Patterson had been carried to Anvik, Bird made a trip up the river and came back with a man by the name of Smith; that Smith left, and the next day after that, Bird was very disagreeable, and tried to pick a fight with the woman, Naomi Strong; he acted very funny, you had to watch him and be careful. He got awful good after that, and everything was just so. It was "Charles this," and "Naomi this." To which testimony defendant excepted, and the exception was sustained.

The court, at the request of the government, instructed the jury that

"if they believe from the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant Bird, on the 27th day of September, 1898 at a point on the Yukon River about two miles below the coal mine known as Camp Dewey and about 85 miles above Anvik and within the District of Alaska, shot and killed one J. H. Hurlin, and that said killing was malicious, premeditated and willful, and that said killing was not in the necessary defense of the defendants' life or to prevent the infliction upon him of great bodily harm, then it is your duty to find the defendant guilty as charged in the indictment."

Held that this was substantial error.

Page 180 U. S. 357

At a term of the United States District Court in and for the District of Alaska, Homer Bird, the plaintiff in error, was tried on a charge of having murdered one J. H. Hurlin on the 27th day of September, A.D. 1898. On December 6, 1899, the jury found the defendant guilty as charged in the indictment, and on December 13, 1899, a motion for a new trial having been overruled, a sentence of death by hanging on February 9, A.D. 1900, was pronounced. A bill of exceptions was settled and signed by the trial judge on February 8, 1900, and a writ of error from the Supreme Court of the United States was allowed. The evidence contained in the bill of exceptions shows that a party of five persons, composed of Homer Bird, J. H. Hurlin, Robert L. Patterson, Charles Scheffler, and Naomi Strong, sailed up the Yukon River, in the latter part of July, 1898, on an adventure in search of gold. They traveled on a small steam launch, towing a scow laden with an outfit of clothes and provisions sufficient to last them about two years. In the latter part of September, 1898, they reached a point on the river about 600 miles from St. Michaels at the mouth of the Yukon, when they determined to go into winter quarters, and there began the construction of a cabin on the banks of the stream. On September 27, 1898, in a quarrel that had arisen about a partition of the supplies, Hurlin was shot and killed by Bird. At the trial in December, 1899, there were three witnesses who had been present at the time of the homicide, Scheffler, Strong and Bird, the accused. As the fact of the killing of Hurlin by Bird was not denied, the trial turned on the question whether the killing was malicious and willful or was in self-defense.

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