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Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1



Document 29

United States v. Wilson

7 Pet. 150 1833

[Marshall, C.J.:] In this case the grand jury had found an indictment against the prisoner for robbing the mail, to which he had pleaded not guilty. Afterwards, he withdrew this plea, and pleaded guilty. On a motion by the district attorney, at a subsequent day, for judgment, the court suggested the propriety of inquiring as to the effect of a certain pardon, understood to have been granted by the president of the United States to the defendant, since the conviction on this indictment, alleged to relate to a conviction on another indictment, and that the motion was adjourned till the next day. On the succeeding day the counsel for the prisoner appeared in court, and on his behalf waived and declined any advantage or protection which might be supposed to arise from the pardon referred to; and thereupon the following points were made by the district attorney:

1. That the pardon referred to is expressly restricted to the sentence of death passed upon the defendant under another conviction, and as expressly reserves from its operation the conviction now before the court.

2. That the prisoner can, under this conviction, derive no advantage from the pardon without bringing the same judicially before the court.

The prisoner being asked by the court whether he had any thing to say why sentence should not be pronounced for the crime whereof he stood convicted in this particular case, and whether he wished in any manner to avail himself of the pardon referred to, answered that he had nothing to say, and that he did not wish in any manner to avail himself, in order to avoid the sentence in this particular case, of the pardon referred to.

The judges were thereupon divided in opinion on both points made by the district attorney, and ordered them to be certified to this court.

A certiorari was afterwards awarded to bring up the record of the case in which judgment of death had been pronounced against the prisoner. The indictment charges a robbery of the mail, and putting the life of the driver in jeopardy. The robbery charged in each indictment is on the same day, at the same place and on the same carrier.

We do not think that this record is admissible, since no direct reference is made to it in the points adjourned by the circuit court: and without its aid we cannot readily comprehend the questions submitted to us.

If this difficulty be removed, another is presented by the terms in which the first point is stated on the record. The attorney argued, first, that the pardon referred to is expressly restricted to the sentence of death passed upon the defendant under another conviction, and as expressly reserves from its operation the conviction now before the court. Upon this point the judges were opposed in opinion. Whether they were opposed on the fact, or on the inference drawn from it by the attorney; and what that inference was, the record does not explicitly inform us. If the question on which the judges doubted was, whether such a pardon ought to restrain the court from pronouncing judgment in the case before them, which was expressly excluded from it; the first inquiry is, whether the robbery charged in the one indictment is the same with that charged in the other. This is neither expressly affirmed nor denied. If the convictions be for different robberies, no question of law can arise on the effect which the pardon of the one may have on the proceedings for the others.

If the statement on the record be sufficient to inform this court, judicially, that the robberies are the same, we are not told on what point of law the judges were divided. The only inference we can draw from the statement is, that it was doubted whether the terms of the pardon could restrain the court from pronouncing the judgment of law on the conviction before them. The prisoner was convicted of robbing the mail, and putting the life of the carrier in jeopardy, for which the punishment is death. He had also been convicted on an indictment for the same robbery, as we now suppose, without putting life in jeopardy, for which the punishment is fine and imprisonment; and the question supposed to be submitted is, whether a pardon of the greater offence, excluding the less, necessarily comprehends the less, against its own express terms.

We should feel not much difficulty on this statement of the question, but it is unnecessary to discuss or decide it.

Whether the pardon reached the less offence or not, the first indictment comprehended both the robbery and the putting life in jeopardy, and the conviction and judgment pronounced upon it extended to both. After the judgment no subsequent prosecution could be maintained for the same offence, or for any part of it, provided the former conviction was pleaded. Whether it could avail without being pleaded, or in any manner relied on by the prisoner, is substantially the same question with that presented in the second point, which is, "that the prisoner can, under this conviction, derive no advantage from the pardon, without bringing the same judicially before the court by plea, motion or otherwise."

The constitution gives to the president, in general terms, "the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States."

As this power had been exercised from time immemorial by the executive of that nation whose language is our language, and to whose judicial institutions ours bear a close resemblance; we adopt their principles respecting the operation and effect of a pardon, and look into their books for the rules prescribing the manner in which it is to be used by the person who would avail himself of it.

A pardon is an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws, which exempts the individual, on whom it is bestowed, from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed. It is the private, though official act of the executive magistrate, delivered to the individual for whose benefit it is intended, and not communicated officially to the court. It is a constituent part of the judicial system, that the judge sees only with judicial eyes, and knows nothing respecting any particular case, of which he is not informed judicially. A private deed, not communicated to him, whatever may be its character, whether a pardon or release, is totally unknown and cannot be acted on. The looseness which would be introduced into judicial proceedings, would prove fatal to the great principles of justice, if the judge might notice and act upon facts not brought regularly into the cause. Such a proceeding, in ordinary cases, would subvert the best established principles, and overturn those rules which have been settled by the wisdom of ages.

Is there any thing peculiar in a pardon which ought to distinguish it in this respect from other facts?

We know of no legal principle which will sustain such a distinction.

A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered; and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.

It may be supposed that no being condemned to death would reject a pardon; but the rule must be the same in capital cases and in misdemeanours. A pardon may be conditional; and the condition may be more objectionable than the punishment inflicted by the judgment.

The pardon may possibly apply to a different person or a different crime. It may be absolute or conditional. It may be controverted by the prosecutor, and must be expounded by the court. These circumstances combine to show that this, like any other deed, ought to be brought "judicially before the court by plea, motion or otherwise."

The decisions on this point conform to these principles. Hawkins, b. 2, ch. 37, sect. 59, says, "but it is certain that a man may waive the benefit of a pardon under the great seal, as where one who hath such a pardon doth not plead it, but takes the general issue, after which he shall not resort to the pardon." In sect. 67, he says, "an exception is made of a pardon after plea."

Notwithstanding this general assertion, a court would undoubtedly at this day permit a pardon to be used after the general issue. Still, where the benefit is to be obtained through the agency of the court, it must be brought regularly to the notice of that tribunal.

Hawkins says, sec. 64, "it will be error to allow a man the benefit of such a pardon unless it be pleaded." In sect. 65, he says, "he who pleads such a pardon must produce it sub fide sigilli, though it be a plea in bar, because it is presumed to be in his custody, and the property of it belongs to him."

Comyn, in his Digest, tit. Pardon, letter H, says, "if a man has a charter of pardon from the king, he ought to plead it in bar of the indictment; and if he pleads not guilty he waives his pardon." The same law is laid down in Bacon's Abridgment, title Pardon; and is confirmed by the cases these authors quote.

We have met with only one case which might seem to question it. Jenkins, page 169, case 62, says, "if the king pardons a felon, and it is shown to the court, and yet the felon pleads guilty, and waives the pardon, he shall not be hanged; for it is the king's will that he shall not, and the king has an interest in the life of his subject. The books to the contrary are to be understood where the charter of pardon is not shown to the court."

This vague dictum supposes the pardon to be shown to the court. The waiver spoken of is probably that implied waiver which arises from pleading the general issue: and the case may be considered as determining nothing more than that the prisoner may avail himself of the pardon by showing it to the court, even after waiving it by pleading the general issue. If this be, and it most probably is the fair and sound construction of this case, it is reconciled with all the other decisions, so far as respects the present inquiry.

Blackstone, in his 4th vol. p. 337, says, "a pardon may be pleaded in bar." In p. 376, he says, "it may also be pleaded in arrest of judgment." In p. 401, he says, "a pardon by act of parliament is more beneficial than by the king's charter; for a man is not bound to plead it, but the court must, ex officio, take notice of it; neither can he lose the benefit of it by his own laches or negligence, as he may of the king's charter of pardon. The king's charter of pardon must be specially pleaded, and that at a proper time; for if a man is indicted and has a pardon in his pocket, and afterwards puts himself upon his trial by pleading the general issue, he has waived the benefit of such pardon. But if a man avails himself thereof, as by course of law he may, a pardon may either be pleaded on arraignment, or in arrest of judgment, or, in the present stage of proceedings, in bar of execution."

The reason why a court must ex officio take notice of a pardon by act of parliament, is that it is considered as a public law; having the same effect on the case as if the general law punishing the offence had been repealed or annulled.

This court is of opinion that the pardon in the proceedings mentioned, not having been brought judicially before the court by plea, motion or otherwise, cannot be noticed by the judges.


The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1, Document 29
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