State v. Boon (1801)


HALL, J. The prisoner has been found guilty of the offence charged in the indictment [Boon was indicted and convicted under the third section of the act of 1791 for killing a slave belonging to another]; whether any, or what punishment, can be inflicted upon him in consequence thereof, is not to be decided. . . .

We must consider the words of the enacting clause, without regard to the preamble. . . . If any person hereafter shall be guilty of killing a slave &c. such offender shall be adjudged guilty of murder &c. and shall suffer the same punishment, as if he had killed a free man. In case the person had killed a free man what punishment would the law have inflicted upon him? Before this question can be solved another must be asked; because upon that, the solution of the first depends. What sort of a killing was it? or what circumstances of aggravation or mitigation attended it? . . . That to which the Legislature referred us for the purpose of ascertaining the punishment, proper to be inflicted is, in itself, so doubtful and uncertain that I think no punishment whatever can be inflicted; without using a discretion and indulging a latitude, which in criminal cases, ought never to be allowed a Judge.

. . . Much latitude of construction ought not to be permitted to operate against life; if it operate at all, it should be in favor of it. Punishments ought to be plainly defined and easy to be understood; they ought not to depend upon construction or arbitrary discretion. . . .

But it has been also contended, on behalf of the state, that the offense with which the prisoner is charged, is a felony at common law, and that having been found guilty by the jury, he ought to be punished, independently of any Act of Assembly on the subject. . . .

Slaves in this country possess no such rights; their condition is . . . abject; . . . they are not parties to our constitution; it was not made for them.

. . . it is doubtful whether the offense with which he is charged is a felony at common law or not. It is doubtful whether he ought to be punished or not, that, certainly, is a sufficient reason for discharging him . . . I cannot hesitate to say, that he ought to be discharged.

JOHNSTON, J. The murder of a slave, appears to me, a crime of the most atrocious and barbarous nature; much more so than killing a person who is free, and on an equal footing. It is an evidence of a most depraved and cruel disposition, to murder one, so much in your power, that he is incapable of making resistance, even in his own defence . . . and had there been nothing in our acts of Assembly, I should not hesitate on this occasion to have pronounced sentence of death on the prisoner.

. . . From the context, and taking every part of the section [of the act of 1791] under consideration, there remains no doubt in my mind respecting the intention of the Legislature; but the judges in this country . . . have laid down, and invariably adhered to, very strict rules in the construction of penal statutes in favor of life . . .

. . . judgment in this case should be arrested.

TAYLOR, JR. . . . But when the court is called upon, under an act of Assembly, to pronounce the highest punishment known to the law, they must be satisfied that the language used is clear and explicit to the object intended . . . I think no judgment can be pronounced.