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THOMPSON v. MISSOURI.

decided: May 31, 1898.

THOMPSON
v.
MISSOURI.



ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF MISSOURI.

Author: Harlan

[ 171 U.S. Page 380]

 MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the court.

The record suggests many questions of law, but the only one that may be considered by this court is whether the proceedings against the plaintiff in error were consistent with the provision in the Constitution of the United States forbidding the States from passing ex post facto laws.

Thompson was indicted in the St. Louis Criminal Court at its November term 1894 for the murder, in the first degree, of one Joseph M. Cunningham, a sexton at one of the churches in the city of St. Louis. Having been tried and convicted of the offence charged, he prosecuted an appeal to the Supreme Court of Missouri, and by that court the judgment was reversed and a new trial was ordered. State v. Thompson, 132 Missouri, 301. At the second trial the accused was again convicted; and a new trial having been denied, he prosecuted another appeal to the Supreme Court of the State. That court affirmed the last judgment, and the present appeal

[ 171 U.S. Page 381]

     brings that judgment before us for reexamination. State v. Thompson, 42 S.W. Rep. (Missouri) 949.

The evidence against the accused was entirely circumstantial in its nature. One of the issues of fact was as to the authorship of a certain prescription for strychnine, and of a certain letter addressed to the organist of the church containing threatening language about the sexton. The theory of the prosecution was that the accused had obtained the strychnine specified in the prescription and put it into food that he delivered or caused to be delivered to the deceased with intent to destroy his life. The accused denied that he wrote either the prescription or the letter to the organist, or that he had any connection with either of those writings. At the first trial certain letters written by him to his wife were admitted in evidence for the purpose of comparing them with the writing in the prescription and with the letter to the organist. The Supreme Court of the State, upon the first appeal, held that it was error to admit in evidence for purposes of comparison the letters written by Thompson to his wife, and for that error the first judgment was reversed and a new trial ordered. 132 Missouri, 301, 324.

Subsequently, the general assembly of Missouri passed an act which became operative in July, 1895, providing that "comparison of a disputed writing with any writing proved to the satisfaction of the judge to be genuine shall be permitted to be made by witnesses, and such writings and the evidence of witnesses respecting the same may be submitted to the court and jury as evidence of the genuineness or otherwise of the writing in dispute." Laws Missouri, April 8, 1895, p. 284.

This statute is in the very words of section 27 of the English Common Law Procedure Act of 1854, 17 & 18 Vict. c. 125. And by the 28 Vict. c. 18, ยงยง 1, 8, the provisions of the act were extended to criminal cases.

At the second trial, which occurred in 1896, the letters written by the accused to his wife were again admitted in evidence, over his objection, for the purpose of comparing them with the order for strychnine and the letter to the

[ 171 U.S. Page 382]

     organist. This action of the trial court was based upon the above statute of 1895.

The contention of the accused is that as the letters to his wife were not, at the time of the commission of the alleged offence, admissible in evidence for the purpose of comparing them with other writings charged to be in his handwriting, the subsequent statute of Missouri ...


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