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    IN RE ECKART, 166 U.S. 481 (1897)

    U.S. Supreme Court

    IN RE ECKART, 166 U.S. 481 (1897)

    166 U.S. 481

    In re ECKART.
    No. 14
    , Original.

    April 19, 1897

    Rublee A. Cole, for petitioner.

    W. H. Mylrea, for espondent.

    Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the court.

    This is an application for the allowance of a writ of habeas corpus, to obtain the discharge of the petitioner from an alleged unlawful imprisonment in the Wisconsin State Prison.

    From the statements in the petition and return, it appears that petitioner has been detained in custody since April 13, 1878, under a judgment of the circuit court of Jefferson county, Wis., entered upon a verdict of a jury finding him 'guilty,' after trial had, upon an information which charged Eckart with having, 'on the 13th day of December in the year 1877, at Jefferson county, state of Wisconsin, unlawfully, feloniously, and of his malice aforethought killed and murdered Charles Paterson, against the peace and dignity of the state of Wisconsin.' The ground relied upon to establish that the imprisonment, under the judgment referred to, was unlawful, is that, under the laws of Wisconsin, murder is divided into three degrees, the punishment varying according to the degree, and that, as the verdict in question failed to specify the degree [166 U.S. 481, 482]   of murder of which the accused was found guilty, the trial court was without jurisdiction to pass sentence and judgment upon the accused, and the deprivation of liberty under such judgment is without due process of law.

    It also appears from the statements in the petition and answer to the rule that in September, 1893, Eckart unsuccessfully applied to the supreme court of Wisconsin for the allowance of a writ of habeas corpus, asserting in his petition the same detention and the same grounds for his right to release as is relied upon in the present application, and that in his petition to the Wisconsin court he specially set up that the was restrained of his liberty 'contrary to the constitution of the United States and laws enacted thereunder, and without the due process of law guarantied by the fourteenth amendment to that instrument.'

    It has been held by the supreme court of Wisconsin that, under the statutes of that state, an allegation of the commission of crime in language such as was employed in the information upon which Eckart was tried would justify a conviction of murder in either the first, second, or third degree, and it has also been there held that the jury must find the degree in their verdict, in order that the court may impose the proper punishment. Hogan v. State, 30 Wis. 428, 434; Allen v. State, 85 Wis. 32, 54 N. W. 999; La Tour v. State (Wis.) 67 N. W. 1138.

    In its decision refusing the writ applied for by Eckart, the supreme court of Wisconsin held that, while the conviction under the sentence in question was erroneous, the error in passing sentence was not a jurisdictional defect, and the judgment was therefore not void. In this view we concur. The court had jurisdiction of the offense charged, and of the person of the accused. The verdict clearly did not acquit him of the crime with which he was charged, but found that he had committed an offense embraced with in the accusation upon which he was tried. It was within the jurisdiction of the trial judge to pass upon the sufficiency of the verdict, and to construe its legal meaning, and if, in so doing, he erred, and held the verdict to be sufficiently certain to authorize the imposition of punishment for the highest grade of the offense charged, it [166 U.S. 481, 483]   was an error committed in the exercise of jurisdiction, and one which does not present a jurisdictional defect, remediable by the writ of habeas corpus. The case is analogous in principle to that of a trial and conviction upon an indictment, the facts averred in which are asserted to be insufficient to constitute an offense against the statute claimed to have been violated. In this class of cases it has been held that a trial court possessing general jurisdiction of the class of offenses within which is embraced the crime cought to be set forth in the indictment is possessed of authority to determine the sufficiency of an indictment, and, in adjudging it to be valid and sufficient, acts within its jurisdiction, and a conviction and judgment thereunder cannot be questioned on habeas corpus, because of a lack of certainty or other defect in the statement in the indictment of the facts averred to constitute a crime. In re Coy, 127 U.S. 731 , 756-758, 8 Sup. Ct. 1263, and cases there cited.

    The ruling in Ex parte Belt, 159 U.S. 95 , 15 Sup. Ct. 987, is also applicable. There an application was presented for leave to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus directed to the superintendent of the Albany County Penitentiary, in the state of New York, for the discharge of Belt from custody under a sentence of the supreme court of the District of Columbia. Belt had been indicted for the crime of larceny. In the course of the trial the record of a former conviction of larceny was introduced, to establish that the offense for which the prisoner was then upon trial was a second offense, which fact, if established, subjected the accused to a greater punishment than would otherwise be authorized. Objection was taken to the admission of the record, on the ground that it showed a waiver of the right of trial by a jury on the part of the prisoner, and a trial and conviction by the court alone without a jury,-a mode of procedure claimed to be in violation of the constitution of the United States, and rendering the subsequent proceedings null and void. The objection was overruled, and Belt was convicted and sentenced. The judgment being affirmed on appeal, Belt made the application to this court reperred to, asking to be relieved from imprisonment under the alleged void sentence and judgment. It was argued on his behalf [166 U.S. 481, 484]   that the constitutional requirement of trial by a jury in criminal cases could not be waived by the accused, though in pursuance of a statute authorizing such a waiver; and, on the assumption that the first conviction was necessarily void, the second conviction predicated thereon was likewise a nullity. Upon the authority, however, of Ex parte Bigelow, 113 U.S. 328 , 5 Sup. Ct. 542, it was held that the ground of application did not go to the jurisdiction or authority of the trial court, but was allegation of mere error, which was not reviewable on habeas corpus; citing, on this latter proposition, In re Schneider, 148 U.S. 162 , 13 Sup. Ct. 572.

    The case of Ex parte Bigelow determined that the action of a trial court in overruling a plea of former jeopardy could not be reviewed on habeas corpus. In the course of the opinion, the court said (page 330, 113 U. S., and page 543, 5 Sup. Ct.):

    In the Belt Case, this court, speaking through Mr. Chief Justice Fuller, said (page 99, 159 U. S., and page 988, 15 Sup. Ct.):

    The case presented by the record is not within any of the exceptions to the general rule that when a court has jurisdiction by law of the offense charged, and of the party who is so charged, its judgments are not nullities, which can be collaterally attacked. The writ of habeas corpus cannot be made to perform the functions of a writ of error. U. S. v. Pridgeon, 153 U.S. 48 , 14 Sup. Ct. 746. It follows that the rule must be discharged, and the writ refused, and it is so ordered.

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