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HICKORY V. UNITED STATES, 160 U. S. 408 (1896)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Hickory v. United States, 160 U.S. 408 (1896)

Hickory v. United States

No. 491

Submitted March 5, 1895

Decided January 6, 1896

160 U.S. 408


An assignment of error which indicates the subject matter in the charge to which the exceptions relate with sufficient clearness to enable the court, from a mere inspection of the charge, to ascertain the particular matter referred to, is sufficient.

Acts of concealment by an accused are competent to go to the jury as tending to establish guilt, but they are not to be considered as alone conclusive or as creating a legal presumption of guilt, but only as circumstances to be considered and weighed in connection with other proof with the same caution and circumspection which their inconclusiveness, when standing alone, requires.

The presumption of guilt arising from the flight of the accused is a presumption of fact -- not of law -- and is merely a circumstance tending to increase the probability of the defendant's being the guilty person, which is to be weighed by the jury like any other evidentiary circumstance.

A statement in a charge to the jury that no one who was conscious of innocence would resort to concealment is substantially an instruction that all men who do so are necessarily guilty, and magnifies and distorts the power of the facts on the subject of the concealment.

The court below charged the jury as to the probative weight which should be attached to the flight of the accused, as follows:

"And not only this, but the law recognizes another proposition as true, and it is that 'the wicked flee when no man pursueth,but the innocent are as bold as a lion.' That is a self-evident proposition that has been recognized so often by mankind that we can take it as an axiom and apply it to this case."

Held that this was tantamount to saying to the jury that flight created a legal presumption of guilt so strong and so conclusive that it was the duty of the jury to act on it as axiomatic truth, and as such that it was error.

On these points, the charge of the court was neither calm nor impartial, but put every deduction which could be drawn against the accused from the proof of concealment and flight, and omitted or obscured the converse aspect, and in so doing, it deprived the jury of the light requisite to the safe use of these facts for the ascertainment of truth.

The plaintiff in error, being indicted for the murder of one Wilson, became a witness on his own behalf on his trial. The court charged the jury:

"Bearing in mind that he stands before you as an interested witness,

Page 160 U. S. 409

while these circumstances are of a character that they cannot be bribed, that cannot be dragged into perjury, they cannot be seduced by bribery into perjury, but they stand as bloody naked facts before you, speaking for Joseph Wilson and justice, in opposition to and confronting this defendant, who stands before you as an interested party; the party who has in this case the largest interest a man can have in any case upon earth."

Held that such a charge crosses the line which separates the impartial exercise of the judicial function from the region of partisanship where reason is disturbed, passions excited, and prejudices are necessarily called into play.

The case is stated in the opinion.

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