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Opinion of the Court.


to testify. To relieve him from this embarrassment the law was passed. In mercy to him, he is by the act in question permitted upon his request to testify in his own behalf in the case. In a vast number of instances the innocence of the defendant of the charge with which he was confronted has been established.

But the act was framed with a due regard also to those who might prefer to rely upon the presumption of innocence which the law gives to every one, and not wish to be wit

It is not every one who can safely venture on the witness stand though entirely innocent of the charge against him. Excessive timidity, nervousness when facing others and attempting to explain transactions of a suspicious character, and offences charged against him, will often confuse and embarrass him to such a degree as to increase rather than remove prejudices against him. It is not every one, however honest, who would, therefore, willingly be placed on the witness stand. The statute, in tenderness to the weakness of those who from the causes mentioned might refuse to ask to be a witness, particularly when they may have been in some degree compromised by their association with others, declares that the failure of the defendant in a criminal action to request to be a witness shall not create any presumption against him.

In this case this provision of the statute was plainly disregarded. When the District Attorney, referring to the fact that the defendant did not ask to be a witness, said to the jury, “I want to say to you, that if I am ever charged with crime, I will not stop by putting witnesses on the stand to testify to my good character, but I will go upon the stand and hold up my hand before high Heaven and testify to my innocence of the crime,” he intimated to them as plainly as if he had said in so many words that it was a circumstance against the innocence of the defendant that he did not go on the stand and testify. Nothing could have been more effective with the jury to induce them to disregard entirely the presumption of innocence to which by the law he was entitled, and which by the statute he could not lose by a failure to offer himself as a

Opinion of the Court.

witness. And when counsel for defendant called the attention of the court to this language of the District Attorney it was not met by any direct prohibition or emphatic condemnation of the court, which only said : “I suppose the counsel should not comment upon the defendant not taking the stand.” It should have said that the counsel is forbidden by the statute to make any comment which would create or tend to create a presumption against the defendant from his failure to testify.

Instead of stating, after mentioning that the United States court is not governed by the State's statutes, “I do not know that it ought to be the subject of comment by counsel,” the court should have said that any such comment would tend necessarily to defeat the very prohibition of the statute. And the reply of the District Attorney to the mild observation of the court only intensified the fact to which he had already called the attention of the jury : “I did not mean to refer to it in that light, and I do not intend to refer in a single word to the fact that he did not testify in his own behalf,” which was equivalent to saying, “You gentlemen of the jury know full well that an innocent man would have gone on the stand and have testified to his innocence, but I do not mean to refer to the fact that he did not, for it is a circumstance which you will take into consideration without it.” By this action of the court in refusing to condemn the language of the District Attorney, and to express to the jury in emphatic terms that they should not attach to the failure any importance whatever as a presumption against the defendant, the impression was left on the minds of the jury that if he were an innocent man he would have gone on the stand as the District Attorney stated he himself would have done.

This language of the District Attorney, and this action, or rather want of action, of the court, are set forth in the bill of exceptions, and although exceptions are generally taken to some ruling, or want of ruling, by the court in the progress of the trial in the admission or rejection of evidence or the interpretation of instruments, yet they can be taken to its action or want of proper action upon any proceeding in the progress of the trial from its commencement to its conclusion,

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Opinion of the Court.

and when properly presented can be considered by the court on writ of error.

The refusal of the court to condemn the reference of the District Attorney and to prohibit any subsequent reference to the failure of the defendant to appear as a witness tended to his prejudice before the jury, and this effect should be corrected by setting the verdict aside and awarding a new trial.

Similar statutes to the one we have been considering have been passed by several States, and the rulings upon them have been substantially in accordance with our judgment in this case.

In 1866, the legislature of Massachusetts passed an act almost identical in terms with the act of Congress under consideration. It provided that “in the trial of all indictments, complaints and other proceedings against persons charged with the commission of crimes or offences, the person so charged shall, at his own request, but not otherwise, be deemed a competent witness; nor shall the neglect or refusal to testify create any presumption against the defendant.” The provision has been since reënacted in substantially the same terms. Mass. Stats. 1866, c. 260; 1870, c. 393, § 1, cl. 3; Pub. Stats. 1882, p. 987, c. 169, $ 18, cl. 3. And in the case of Commonwealth v. Scott, 123 Mass. 239, 240, 241, where the indictment against the defendants was for breaking and entering a house in the night time with intent to commit larceny therein, none of the defendants testified at the trial, and the prosecuting attorney, in his closing argument, commented upon this fact, when the counsel for the defendants interrupted him and asked the judge to rule that the fact that the defendants did not testify could not be commented on by the government. But the judge, having first stated the law that the fact that they did not testify did not create any presumption against them, ruled that, inasmuch as the matter bad been referred to by their counsel, the prosecuting attorney had a right to comment on the reasons given for their not going upon the stand and testifying in their behalf, and also to give the reasons which the government contended really existed for their not testifying; and permitted the prosecuting attorney

Opinion of the Court.

to proceed in his comments. The jury having rendered a verdict of guilty, the defendants alleged exceptions, and the case went to the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth. The Chief Justice, in delivering the opinion of the court, after referring to the fact that the government had no right to interrogate a person accused of crime, or to compel him to testify, but was bound to sustain its charge by independent evidence, observed that “the statutes allowing persons charged with the commission of crimes or offences to testify in their own behalf were passed for their benefit and protection, and clearly recognize their constitutional privilege, by providing that their neglect or refusal to testify shall not create any presumption against them."

And again : “ The course of the closing argument for the prosecution tended to persuade the jury that the omission of the defendants to testify implied an admission or a consciousness of the crime charged; and the presiding judge in permitting such a course of argument, against the objection of the defendants, and in ruling that the prosecuting attorney had a right to comment on the reasons which the defendants' counsel gave for their not going upon the stand and testifying in their behalf, and also to give the reasons which the government contended really existed for their not testifying, committed an error which was manifestly prejudicial to the defendants, and which obliges this court to set aside the verdict and order a new trial.”

The criminal code of Illinois, after providing that in criminal cases the accused may, on his own motion, testify in the case, declares, in a proviso, that "his neglect to testify shall not create any presumption against him, nor shall the court permit any reference or comment to be made to or upon such neglect.”

In the case of Austin v. The People, 102 Illinois, 261, 264, a reference had been made to the neglect of the accused to testify, both in the opening and concluding argument for the prosecution, and the court, in setting aside the verdict of guilty which was rendered in that case, said : “When the statute says that no presumption against the accused shall be created

Statement of the Case.

by his neglect to testify, it clearly meant that in cases where the defendant should not choose to avail himself of the privilege offered by the statute, the trial should be conducted in the same manner and upon the same presumptions as if the statute had not been passed.” And again : “We do not see how this statute can be completely enforced, unless it be adopted as a rule of practice that such improper and forbidden reference by counsel for the prosecution shall be regarded good ground for a new trial in all cases where the proofs of guilt are not so clear and conclusive that the court can say affirmatively the accused could not have been harmed from that cause."

This view of the effect of the objections taken to the course of the district attorney, and to the failure of the court to properly condemn it, renders it unnecessary to consider any other alleged errors. The judgment must be reversed and the cause remanded with

directions to award a new trial, and it is so ordered.

In re FREDERICH, Petitioner.



No. 1305. Argued April 7, 10, 1893. – Decided April 24, 1893.

When a prisoner, convicted of crime in a state court and sentenced there

to punishment, complains that his rights under the Constitution or laws of the United States have been thereby violated, he may seek relief in the federal courts by an application either to the proper Circuit Court for a writ of habeas corpus, or to a justice of this court for a writ of error to the

state court. The remedy by habeas corpus should be limited to cases in which the judg

ment or sentence attacked is clearly void by reason of its having been rendered without jurisdiction, or by reason of the court's having exceeded its jurisdiction in the premises; and the general rule and better practice, in the absence of special facts and circumstances, is to require the prisoner to seek a review by writ of error instead of resorting to the writ of habeas corpus.

This was an appeal from an order denying an application for a writ of habeas corpus addressed to the court below by

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