United States v. Murphy,
41 U.S. 203 (1842)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Murphy, 41 U.S. 16 Pet. 203 203 (1842)

United States v. Murphy

41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 203


The owner of property alleged to have been stolen on board an American vessel, on the high seas, is a competent witness to prove the ownership of the property stolen, on an indictment against the person charged with the offense, under the "Act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States," passed 30 April, 1790.

The fine imposed on the person who shall be convicted of the offense of stealing on the high seas on board a vessel of the United States is part of the punishment in furtherance of public justice, rather than an indemnity or compensation to the owner. From the nature of an indictment and the sentence thereon, the government alone has the right to control the whole proceedings and execution of the sentence. Even after verdict, the government may not choose to bring the party up for sentence, and if sentence is pronounced and the fine is imposed, the owner has no authority to interfere in the collection of it, any more than the informer or prosecutor, and the fine therefore must be deemed receivable by the government and the government alone.

In cases of necessity, where a statute can receive no execution unless the party interested be a witness, there he must be allowed to testify, for the statute must not be rendered ineffectual by the impossibility of proof.

In cases where, although the statute giving the party or the informer a part of the penalty or forfeiture contains no direct affirmation that he shall nevertheless be a competent witness, yet the court will infer it, by implication, from the language of the statute or its professed objects.

On indictment for stealing sovereigns while on board the ship Carroll of Carrolton on the high seas.

The defendants, William Murphy and William Morgan, were indicted under the 16th section of the act entitled, "an Act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States," approved on 30 April 1790, for taking and carrying away, with an intent to steal and purloin, on board of an American vessel on the high seas, one hundred and two gold coins called sovereigns, each of the value of five dollars, of the personal goods of Francis McMahon.

The defendants having pleaded not guilty, and the case being brought to trial, Francis McMahon, the owner of the property described in the indictment, was called as a witness on the part

Page 41 U. S. 204

of the United States to prove the ownership of the said property and that it had been stolen from him in June 1840, in his passage on board the ship Carroll of Carrolton from Liverpool to the City of New York, and also, to prove facts and circumstances tending to show that the defendants were guilty of the said offense, to the competency of which witness as to either of the said matters the counsel for the defendants objected on the ground that he was interested in the event of the suit, and so interested that he would not be rendered competent by any release to be executed by him. And thereupon the judges were divided in opinion upon the following questions which were presented for their decision.

"1. Whether the said Francis McMahon, the owner of the property alleged to have been stolen, was a competent witness to be examined on the part of the United States, as to all the matters above mentioned?"

"2. If not competent to testify as to the guilt of the defendants, whether he was competent to prove the ownership of the property described in the indictment, and that it had been taken and carried away, with intent to steal and purloin?"

"3. If not competent for both or either of the above purposes, without having released his interest in the fine to be imposed on the defendants in case of their conviction, whether, by releasing to the United States all his right to and interest in such fine, his competency would be restored?"

Which said points, upon which the disagreement has happened, were stated above under the direction of the said court at the request of the counsel for the parties in the cause and were ordered to be certified unto the Supreme Court of the United States at the next session, pursuant to the act in such case made and provided.

Page 41 U. S. 207

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