Ex Parte Wells
Annotate this Case
59 U.S. 307 (1855)
U.S. Supreme Court
Ex Parte Wells, 59 U.S. 18 How. 307 307 (1855)
Ex Parte Wells
59 U.S. (18 How.) 307
The second article of the Constitution of the United States, section two, contains this provision, namely: "The President shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."
Under this power, the President can grant a conditional pardon to a person under sentence of death, offering to commute that punishment into an imprisonment for life. If this is accepted by the convict, he has no right to contend that the pardon is absolute and the condition of it void. And the court below was justifiable in refusing to discharge the prisoner, when the application was placed upon that ground.
The language used in the Constitution as to the power of pardoning must be construed by the exercise of that power in England prior to the Revolution, and in the states prior to the adoption of the Constitution.
The manner explained in which it was exercised in England and in many of the states.
The language of the Constitution is such that the power of the President to pardon conditionally is not one of inference, but is conferred in terms, that language being to "grant reprieves and pardons," which includes conditional as well as absolute pardons.
The acceptance by the convict of the condition was not given under duress in the legal acceptation of that term
This was a motion for a writ of habeas corpus founded on a petition by Wells setting forth the following circumstances, viz., :
That Wells was convicted of murder at the December term, 1851, of the Criminal Court for the County of Washington, District of Columbia, and was sentenced by said court to be hanged on the 23d of April, 1852, on which said 23d of April, Mr. Fillmore, then President of the United States, granted
"a pardon of the offense of which he was convicted, upon condition that he be imprisoned during his natural life -- that is, the sentence of death is hereby commuted to imprisonment for life in the penitentiary at Washington. "
That while under the constraint of duress of imprisonment and duress per minas, he subscribed an acceptance of the pardon with the condition annexed.
That on the 18th of April, 1855, he applied to the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, for a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted, and that court proceeded to inquire into the cause of his imprisonment.
That the circuit court decided that the President had power to commute the punishment of death, and remanded him to the penitentiary, where he has ever since been confined.
He therefore prayed this Court to issue a writ of habeas corpus.
In this case, as in the case of Ex parte Watkins, 7 Pet. 571, it was admitted that all the facts existing in the case had been laid before the court exactly as they would appear if the habeas corpus had been duly awarded and returned, so that the judgment which the court were called upon to pronounce was precisely that which ought to be pronounced upon a full hearing upon the return to the writ of habeas corpus, and it was accordingly so argued at the bar.
It will be seen also by a reference to that case that the court decided that the judgment which was pronounced upon the petition of Mr. Watkins was an exercise of appellate, and not of original, jurisdiction.