VALENTINA V. MERCER, 201 U. S. 131 (1906)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Valentina v. Mercer, 201 U.S. 131 (1906)

Valentina v. Mercer

No. 404

Argued February 27, 1906

Decided March 12, 1906

201 U.S. 131


Felts v. Murphy, ante, p. 201 U. S. 123, followed, to effect that the writ of habeas corpus cannot perform the functions of a writ of error, and that the power of federal courts to review the judgments of state courts is limited entirely to the question of jurisdiction.

On a trial for murder, the accused admitted the killing, and after all the facts were presented, the court charged the jury to consider all the evidence, and that, if the killing was premeditated, to find a verdict of guilty in the first degree, if not, then on the admitted facts it was murder in the second degree. The jury found in the first degree. The highest court of the state held the charge was without error. Held that, on the record, there was a valid trial by a court having jurisdiction of the subject matter and the person and there was no loss of jurisdiction over either at any time during the trial, and the judgment of the state court could not be reviewed on habeas corpus proceedings in the federal courts.

The appellant has appealed from an order of the United States Circuit Court for the District of New Jersey refusing her application for a writ of habeas corpus.

In her application for the writ, appellant stated that she had been indicted in the Bergen County Court of Oyer and Terminer, in the State of New Jersey, in April, 1904, for the murder of one Rosa Salza, and that she had been convicted on the trial of such indictment by a jury, and sentenced to be hanged on the nineteenth day of May, 1904. She averred that she had been convicted without authority of law, and that her conviction was null and void, because the question of her guilt or innocence of murder was not entertained by the court or submitted to the jury, as the law of New Jersey expressly requires in all cases where parties are indicted for murder, but, on the contrary, she averred that evidence was taken in said court in said proceedings on her trial merely to determine the degree of her guilt; that her counsel, assigned by the court to represent

Page 201 U. S. 132

her in said proceedings, had so stated in a petition in her behalf, made to the court of pardons of the State of New Jersey. She further said that it was stated by her counsel in that same petition that she had pleaded guilty when she was arraigned, but that, under the direction of the court, a plea of not guilty was entered so that evidence might be taken for the purpose of determining the degree of guilt. The averment she denied. The petitioner claimed that the proceedings were wholly unwarranted by the law of New Jersey, and that the court and her counsel proceeded under the impression that § 68 of the Act for the Punishment of Crimes, approved March 27, 1874, which provided that

"if a person indicted for murder should be convicted by confession in open court, the court should proceed by examining witnesses to determine the degree of the crime,"

was then in existence, whereas she said the act had been repealed in 1893, and the present law passed, which provides,

"if, upon arraignment, such plea of guilty shall be offered, it shall be disregarded and a plea of not guilty entered, and a jury impaneled shall try the case in manner aforesaid."

The petitioner urged in her petition that, by the proceedings adopted upon her trial, she was deprived of all benefit of the presumption of innocence and of reasonable doubt to which she was entitled by law, and that the questions of self-defense and manslaughter, fairly raised by her testimony, were excluded from the consideration of the jury, and the question submitted to them was limited by the court simply as to whether she was guilty of murder in the first degree or not, and the benefit of reasonable doubt was confined to that point.

A writ of error was sued out by the petitioner, and her case was brought before the Court of Errors and Appeals, the highest court of the State of New Jersey, for the purpose of review, and, after a hearing, that court refused a new trial. The case is reported in 71 N.J.L. 552.

It appears from the record herein that, upon the trial, proof was given that the petitioner stabbed the deceased with a knife a great many times in the neck and breast, killing her instantly.

Page 201 U. S. 133

Counsel who had been assigned to defend the petitioner called her as a witness, and she admitted that she stabbed the deceased and killed her. She said that the deceased had a child in her arms at the time, and that the petitioner said to her that she did not want to raise any trouble, and told her to put the child away, but that the deceased had the knife in her hand, right behind her dress, and that, when petitioner saw that she had the knife and that the deceased was going to stab her, petitioner took the knife and grabbed the deceased by the hair, and before deceased stabbed her she took the knife away from her and stabbed the deceased.

Upon opening for the defense, her counsel said as follows:

"This defendant, when arraigned in open court, made confession of the commission of this crime, and you, gentlemen of the jury, from the evidence that has been produced on the part of the state, and that which shall be offered on the part of the defense, will simply have to determine what the degree of guilt shall be; your verdict will be either that she is guilty of the taking of the life of this woman, Mrs. Salza, with malice aforethought, premeditated, which would mean a verdict of murder in the first degree, or your verdict will be murder in the second degree, so that I find myself in a very peculiar position. It is one of those cases around which -- the circumstances being such -- that we stand, as it were, with only the defendant to testify. After you have heard her testimony, and possibly one or two witnesses in connection therewith, the case will then be given to you for you to determine whether this woman shall forfeit her life for the act which she committed on March tenth last, or whether she shall suffer the penalty which the law will inflict by reason of a verdict of murder in the second degree."

After that, the evidence was given on the part of the defense, and the defendant was called as a witness, and admitted the killing.

Page 201 U. S. 138

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