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Thursday, June 11, 2020

Handing Down A Sentence

Below is one of the few recorded sentencing statements by Justice Washington. The case, United States v. Lowrey, involved three armed men who threatened to kill a federal marshal who was attempting to serve process on them. 

Morrow Lowrey, Andrew Lowrey, John Lowrey! You severally stand convicted, two of you by juries composed of your fellow citizens, and the third by confession in open court, of a successful though temporary opposition to the laws of your country, by resisting the legitimate authority of an officer in this court in the regular discharge of his duty. You have experienced on your trials every indulgence which the court could grant, and have had the assistance of able counsel to defend you. Every objection in point of law which had the semblance of plausibility was urged in your behalf: for, unfortunately for you, no circumstance occurred in the evidence, which could cast a doubt over your guilt, or extenuate its enormity. Is it possible that you could for a moment have entertained the expectation, that it was in your power to obstruct, with effect, the streams of justice, which give life to the political body, and by which that liberty which we all profess to love, is refreshed and invigorated? Did it never occur to you, that if a few interested and misguided men of your neighborhood sanctioned your lawless conduct, that a better intelligence and superior interest would nerve, if necessary, the arms of a thousand fold your number to crush you? Guarded as she is by all the power of this nation, justice sits securely on her seat, and issues her lawful mandates, which no force can successfully resist, but such as is strong enough to overthrow the whole fabric of the constitution. From the nature of our government, it must be so. The courts of justice are the sanctuaries of the law; and it is through the law that our government speaks and acts. Impair, by any means, the power of these tribunals in the lawful exercise of their functions, and you attack the majesty of the law, and sap, most essentially, the foundations of the republic. The government, in a degraded state, may survive the shock, but it ceases to be a government of laws; and liberty expires when force, the only remaining alternative, becomes necessary to coerce obedience to the will of the nation. Recollect that the state of Pennsylvania, powerful and respectable as she is, forms but a small part of the United States; and that the district of Erie, though it were united in a common effort inimical to the tranquility of the whole nation, is but a spot on the map of the state. What folly then could tempt you, when with your associates, if you have any, are I trust an inconsiderable minority in your district, to raise your hands against the government of your country, acting lawfully through one of its constitutional organs? You might for a day or a month impede the administration of justice in your particular cases. But it was utterly impossible that your triumph could be more than temporary, and with a certain loss of possessions which were not legally yours, you doomed yourselves to imprisonment, and to loss of property to which you were entitled. Should you deem too severe the punishment which the law decrees for your offence, reflect for a moment what had been your situation had the officer persisted in his attempt to do what prudence forbade (but which the laws would have sanctioned,) and you had executed the threats which you wickedly denounced against him. Your lives must then have atoned to your country for her violated laws; but where was the circumstance to extenuate your guilt in the eyes of an offended God? Suppose you could have influenced numbers to assist you in opposing the execution of the law, how would your guilt have been increased by the treason and punishment of those you had deluded! I mention these circumstances with a view to impress upon your friends the conviction of this truth, that the highest crimes, against the laws of God and of society, are in the train of the offence of which you are guilty. There is every reason to believe, that had the officer been less prudent, you had, in acts at least, been more criminal. The court has carefully perused the papers which you requested to be read, with a view, as was supposed, to extenuate your offences, and mitigate your punishment. We have to regret, however, that in these documents we discover nothing but an effort, which ignorance only could have suggested, to justify rather than to excuse yourselves. You complain that the judgments in ejectment upon which the process of execution issued were not sanctioned by the principles of law, were rendered by an incompetent tribunal, and were unfairly obtained. Were we for a moment to admit that these objections were well founded, were there no other means by which you could be redressed, but by a resort to force? If the judgment of this court were erroneous in point of law, it was subject to the correction by a higher tribunal, as capable, as it would have been ready, to rectify our mistakes. To this tribunal an appeal was made in a case resembling yours in its essential features, for the purpose of obtaining a just exposition of the law of 1792, the great point in the cause, and there it was investigated by professional talents which would do honor to any country. The decision was against your title, and it became the duty of the presiding judge of this court, who had entertained a different opinion, as it was certainly yours, to submit to this high authority. The question of jurisdiction in your particular cases was decided in this court, how correctly in point of law, it would ill become me to say, but I dare aver that the judgment was influenced by no considerations which could impeach its purity. That the trial, so far as came within our view, was fairly conducted, can be attested by those whose evidence would not be suspected. That it was ably and faithfully managed by your counsel, no man will doubt, who knows who your counsel were. The declaration imputed to the judges of the court, which it is said misled you, is not true; the opinion given in the cause was in direct opposition to the pretended declaration, and it is absurd to suppose that declaration could have been at variance with the former. I should not have condescended in this way to vindicate the justice and integrity of this court, did I not feel a sincere desire to satisfy you, if I can, how grossly you have been deceived by others, or have deceived yourselves, and how totally groundless were the pretexts which led to your misconduct. That you have been misled I can readily believe. Your conduct has evinced either great ignorance or great depravity. Charity teaches us to impute it to the former; and influenced by this consideration, we are induced to diminish your punishment, which would have been otherwise extended as far as the law would sanction. We feel less reluctance on this occasion, in exercising to your advantage the discretion which the law reposes in us, from the hope that when you return to your families, you will carry with you more correct notions of the duties which you owe to your country and its laws, and that the punishment, mitigated as it is, will prevent the repetition of similar offences by yourselves or others. The law authorizes the court to condemn you to twelve months imprisonment, and the payment of three hundred dollars.

Posted by Gerard Magliocca on June 11, 2020 at 09:01 PM | Permalink


I think Justice Washington had just gotten finished reading Crito.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 14, 2020 3:24:46 PM

Thanks for that interesting rhetorical lesson from the past.

Question: If a judge spoke like this today at sentencing, would he be creating grounds for an appeal? Would it succeed?

Posted by: Othniel | Jun 13, 2020 7:36:52 PM

Thanks. I really enjoyed that wall of text.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Jun 12, 2020 6:40:21 AM

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