Sparf v. United States
|Sparf v. United States|
|Submitted March 5, 1894|
Decided January 21, 1895
|Full case name||Sparf and Hansen v. United States|
|Citations||156 U.S. 51 (more)|
|Prior history||Error to the Circuit Court of the United States for the Northern District of California|
|Majority||Harlan, joined by Fuller, Field, White|
|Dissent||Brewer, joined by Brown|
|Dissent||Gray, joined by Shiras|
Sparf v. United States, 156 U.S. 51 (1895), or Sparf and Hansen v. United States, was a United States Supreme Court case testing the admissibility of confessions by multiple defendants accused of the same crime, and the responsibility of juries.
On the night of January 13, 1884, on a voyage to Tahiti, the second mate, a man called Fitzgerald, of the Hesper was found to be missing. It was believed that he had been killed and his body thrown overboard. The ship's captain, Sodergren, suspected three men, the crew members St. Clair, Hansen, and Sparf, of being participants in the murder. Sodergren kept the three suspects in holding until they arrived in Tahiti, where they were taken ashore by the United States consul at that island and were subsequently sent, with others, to San Francisco, on the vessel Tropic Bird.
The court issued its decision on January 21, 1895 by a 5-4 vote, with Justice Harlan giving the majority opinion.
Confessions with multiple defendants
The court held that if one of two persons, accused of having together committed the crime of murder, makes a voluntary confession in the presence of the other, without threat or coercion, the confession is admissible in evidence against both. However, declarations of one accomplice after the killing made in the absence of the other implicating the guilt of both are admissible in evidence only against the one making the declarations, not against the other.
Responsibility of juries
Sparf v. United States clarified several questions relating to the duty of federal criminal juries, and of federal courts when instructing them.
- It is the duty of a jury to apply the law as given by the court to the facts of a case.
- A court may lay out the legal implications following from a set of facts, but it may not direct the jury to return a guilty verdict.
- A jury may, on the basis of evidence, convict of a lesser offense whose elements are included in another offense.
- In a trial for a person accused of murder, if evidence does not support conviction for a lesser offense, then the court may instruct the jury to consider guilt only for the offenses that have been charged. It is then the duty of the jury to do so.