Sparf v. United States

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Sparf v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Submitted March 5, 1894
Decided January 21, 1895
Full case name Sparf and Hansen v. United States
Citations 156 U.S. 51 (more)
15 S. Ct. 273; 39 L. Ed. 343; 1895 U.S. LEXIS 2120
Prior history Error to the Circuit Court of the United States for the Northern District of California
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Harlan, joined by Fuller, Field, White
Concurrence Jackson
Dissent Brewer, joined by Brown
Dissent Gray, joined by Shiras

Sparf v. United States, 156 U.S. 51 (1895),[1] or Sparf and Hansen v. United States,[2] was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that federal judges were not required to inform jurors of their inherent ability to judge the law in a case. The decision was rendered by a 5-4 margin, with two dissenting opinions. The case distinguished itself from the 1794 precedent in Georgia v. Brailsford, which had required jurors to be informed by the court of their right to judge the case's facts and law, thus allowing jury nullification.


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.[3]


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[edit]

The courts found 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.

Informing jurors of jury nullification[edit]

In cases past, it had been decided that Judges must inform jurors of their ability to not convict based on the quality of the law under which the defendant is being charged. In this case, it wad established that in the federal courts, jurors had the right to receive the law from the court, not to apply it as given by the court.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 156 U.S. 51 Full text of the opinion courtesy of
  2. ^ "Sparf and Hansen v. United States 156 U.S. 51 (1895)""Justia U.S. Supreme Court"
  3. ^ "U.S. Supreme Court SPARF v. U S""Findlaw"
  4. ^ "Sparf and Hansen v. United States""Justia U.S. Supreme Court