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HOWARD v. FLEMING HOWARD V. NORTH CAROLINA

November 16, 1903

HOWARD
v.
FLEMING

HOWARD
v.
NORTH CAROLINA



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA

Fuller, Harlan, Brewer, Brown, White, Peckham, McKenna, Holmes, Day

Author: Brewer

[ 191 U.S. Page 134]

 MR. JUSTICE BREWER, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

Although these are separate cases, coming from different courts, we shall consider them together, for the same proceedings are challenged in each.

[ 191 U.S. Page 135]

     We premise that the trial was had in a state court, and therefore our range of inquiry is not so broad as it would be if it had been in one of the courts of the United States. The highest court of the State has affirmed the validity of the proceedings in that trial, and we may not interfere with its judgment unless some right guaranteed by the Federal constitution was denied and the proper steps taken to preserve for our consideration the question of that denial.

The first contention demanding notice is that the indictment charged no crime. As found it contained three counts, but the two latter were abandoned, and therefore the inquiry is limited to the sufficiency of the first. That charged a conspiracy to defraud. There is in North Carolina no statute defining or punishing such a crime, but the Supreme Court held that it was a common law offense, and as such cognizable in the courts of the State. In other words, the Supreme Court decided that a conspiracy to defraud was a crime punishable under the laws of the State, and that the indictment sufficiently charged the offense. Whether there be such an offense is not a Federal question, and the decision of the Supreme Court is conclusive upon the matter. Neither are we at liberty to inquire whether the indictment sufficiently charged the offense. Caldwell v. Texas, 137 U.S. 692, 698; Davis v. Texas, 139 U.S. 651, 653; Bergemann v. Backer, 157 U.S. 655.

Again, it is contended that the defendants were denied the equal protection of the laws, in that the sentence was more severe than ever before inflicted in North Carolina for a like offense, and was cruel and unusual; in that two were given ten years' and the third only seven years' imprisonment, and also in that they were sentenced to imprisonment in the penitentiary instead of to hard labor on the public roads. No case of a similar offense is cited from the judicial reports of North Carolina, and the Supreme Court in its opinion refers to the crime as "a fashion of swindling, which has doubtless been little practiced in this State." That for other offenses, which may be considered by most, if not all, of a more grievous

[ 191 U.S. Page 136]

     character, less punishments have been inflicted does not make this sentence cruel. Undue leniency in one case does not transform a reasonable punishment in another case to a cruel one. Swindling by means of a pretended gold brick is no trifling crime, and a conspiracy to defraud by such means does not commend itself to sympathy or leniency. But it is unnecessary to attempt to lay down any rule for determining exactly what is necessary to render a punishment cruel and unusual or under what circumstances this court will interfere with the decision of a state court in respect thereto. It is enough to refer to In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436, in which these questions were discussed, and to say that a sentence of ten years for an offense of the nature disclosed by the testimony, especially after it has been sustained by the Supreme Court of a State, does not seem to us deserving to be called cruel. If the effect of this sentence is to induce like criminals to avoid its territory, North Carolina is to be congratulated, not condemned. Doubtless there were sufficient reasons for giving to one of the conspirators a less term than the others. At any rate, there is no such inequality as will justify us in setting aside the judgment against the two.

So far as respects the sentence of the defendants to the penitentiary instead of to work on the public roads, section 4, chap. 355, pp. 630, 631, Laws, N.C., March 7, 1887, in terms warrants it, for that provides that when the judge presiding is satisfied that there is good reason to fear an attempt to release or injure any person convicted of any of the offenses, for which sentences to work on the public roads may be imposed, it shall be lawful for him to sentence to imprisonment in the penitentiary. It is true there is no recital of any such reason to fear, but we cannot hold in the face of the decision of the Supreme Court of the State that the omission of such recital invalidates the judgment.

Again, it is said that there was not due process, because the trial judge refused to instruct the jury on the presumption of innocence. He did ...


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