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Circuit Court Opinions:

Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, United States v. Dow (1840)

Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (1836–1864)

United States v. Dow, 25 F. Cas. 901 (C.C.D. Md. 1840) (No. 14,990) [Fourth Circuit]

Lorenzo Dow, a sailor, was indicted under the Crimes Act of 1790 for murdering the captain of his ship. The prosecution called an African American shipmate of the defendant to testify against him. Federal courts at the time applied section 34 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 (otherwise known as the Rules of Decision Act) to the admissibility of evidence, with the result that state laws governed the qualification of witnesses. The defense objected to the witness based on a Maryland law dating back to 1717, which provided that no person of color could be a witness in a criminal case against a white Christian.

Deeming the colonial-era act still to be in force, as modified by later statutes, Chief Justice Taney turned to legislative intent, asking whether the act’s drafters would have considered Dow—a native of the Philippines of Malaysian descent—to be a white Christian. “[T]he Malays,” Taney ruled, “are not white men, and have never been classed with the white race. In Maryland, they were certainly regarded as belonging to one of those races of whom it was lawful to make slaves, and who, according to the laws of England and the colony, were legitimate objects of the slave trade.” In support of this finding, Taney cited a 1796 Maryland state court case interpreting a 1715 statute defining who could be held in slavery. In that case, a woman who “was undoubtedly a Malay, according to the description in the evidence,” was held to be an enslaved person. As a result, Taney ruled that the witness’s testimony could not be excluded. (The application of discriminatory state laws regarding witness qualification ended in 1864, when Congress provided that in the federal courts “there shall be no exclusion of any witness on account of color.”)

After trial, the jury convicted Dow of murder, and Dow’s counsel made a motion in arrest of judgment. Taney granted the motion, finding the indictment to have been self-contradictory and therefore defective. The indictment recited that Dow, “late of the district of Maryland, mariner, on the 31st day of October 1839, then and there, being on board a certain brig called the Francis … out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, and within the jurisdiction of the United States, did, then and there, commit the crime charged in the indictment.” Because the first “there” referred to Maryland, and the second to the Francis, the indictment had mistakenly placed the crime in two locations at once.

“The rules of law applicable to indictments,” said Taney, “are undoubtedly in many instances technical and nice; but they have been long and well established, and no court has a right to disregard them, even in the case of the humblest individual, or the most guilty offender.” Finding that the court could not look beyond the indictment, Taney granted the defendant’s motion to arrest the judgment. The defendant was then indicted again, retried, and found guilty of murder. He was sentenced to death but subsequently received a presidential pardon.