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Function of Juries & Jurors Doing Justice & Jury Nullification | 15 Feb 2014

-If You Learn One Thing About Jury Nullification Today, It Should Be This

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Advertisement for sale of Shadrach Minkins, 1849

Advertisement for sale of Shadrach Minkins, 1849

Today is an important anniversary in the history of jury nullification. On this day in 1851, on a rainy Saturday morning, federal agents stalked and arrested alleged fugitive Shadrach Minkins, who was at the time working at the Cornhill Coffee House in Boston, Massachusetts. Minkins’ arrest came just a few months after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a key part of the Compromise of 1850, which was a legislative package of five bills designed to maintain the injustice of slavery in the United States and avoid secession or civil war. Secretary of State Daniel Webster in particular took up the cause of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, even though he was generally opposed to slavery, staking (and ultimately decimating) his presidential aspirations on his ability to enforce its provisions in northern states.

Ellen and William Craft

Ellen and William Craft

It also came shortly after the government’s humiliating failure to apprehend Ellen and William Craft, who had previously escaped from slavery in Georgia, and who were hidden by the Vigilance Committee in Boston until they made a second escape to England. The Crafts’ escape called into question whether or not the Fugitive Slave Act could be enforced in Boston. Its champions were eager to capture and return a slave successfully to make a public show of its effectiveness. That opportunity would come in February 1851. Federal marshals sat in the coffee house sipping coffee served to them by the very waiter who they would arrest a few minutes later after he was identified as Shadrach Minkins.

I hear time and again people make the claim that “northern juries refused to convict escaped slaves and set them free” or something like that. This is WRONG and reflects dramatic ignorance of the depths of abuse people were subjected to under slavery. Gary Collison explains in his book Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen the legal status of slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act and other laws of the time:

Samuel Sewall and Ellis Gray Loring took charge of Minkins’ defense before the commissioner, assisted by King and others. With Minkins in the prisoners’ bar, an officer on each side, and Commissioner George T. Curtis on the judge’s bench, the proceedings began. The Fugitive Slave Law called for a “summary” hearing, not the trial. Curtis asked the counsels for Minkins if they desired more time, which of course they did. They had known of the case only 15 minutes before, Sewall argued. Caphart’s lawyer, Colonel Seth Thomas, Webster’s friend and the Boston lawyer who had represented the Crafts’ claimant and other Southerners, pressed for a speedy outcome. “There is nothing in the case but a question of identity,” Thomas argued.

In truth Thomas was nearly right. Under the Fugitive Slave Law, Minkins was allowed none of the ordinary civil liberties accorded to citizens. In federal eyes, he was not a citizen. (The U.S. Supreme Court would later confirm this in the Dred Scott case). He could not testify. He could not have this case heard before a jury. He was not entitled to the protections afforded to citizens under habeas corpus. He was hardly guaranteed any positive rights at all. The sole purpose of a hearing before the commissioner or judge was to establish the authenticity of DeBree’s documents—little more than a mere formality—and Mankins identity. There would be no appeal. Once Commissioner Curtis was satisfied that Minkins was the fugitive described in DeBree’s certified documents, the hearing would be at an end. The whole might of the federal government could then be turned to the task of transferring him to the custody of his master.

Commissioners and lawyers for alleged fugitives—when fugitive managed to obtain legal counsel at all—could insist that the owner’s documents be complete and fully authenticated and that reliable witnesses corroborate the identification of the accused. Still, the law did not demand anything complicated. In some “summary” hearings under the new law, fugitives were on their way back to slavery in less than half an hour. A few fugitives were lucky if their hearings lasted five minutes. Some hearings were held secretly, with none but the alleged fugitive, the claimant, the arresting officers, and the federal commissioner present. Fortunately for Shadrach Minkins, Commissioner Curtis was eager to show that the summary hearing called for by law did not deny all due process. Under the circumstances, Curtis concluded, “a postponement to Tuesday” did not constitute an “unreasonable delay”.

If you learn just one thing today about jury nullification, please let is be this:
SLAVES were not tried under the Fugitive Slave Act and set free through jury nullification. It was those who AIDED in their rescue who were afforded trials by jury.

Shadrach Minkins never had a jury trial, and he never WOULD have had a jury trial. His case would have been decided in a hearing by a judge who had a clear incentive to return him to the person claiming to own him. Everyone standing in Minkins’ corner knew this and so the postponement was requested in order to buy time to find a way to save him. Ultimately, a daring rescue was mounted, the likes of which are barely imaginable today.

Click through to continue with the next post in this series: Jury Nullification and the Rescue of Shadrach Minkins

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