Simon, A Slave v. The State of Florida: The Precedent-Setting Decision Establishing Confessions Extracted by Threats or Promises Are Inadmissible at Trial.

Author:Hardy, David C.
Position:Cover story

In February 1854, the Pensacola Gazette reported that an enslaved person by the name of Simon, whose criminal conviction for arson had been reversed by the Florida Supreme Court, had died in prison. (1) Today the events surrounding Simon's arrest, trial, conviction, appeal, and death are little known. However, the Florida Supreme Court's holding in Simon's case that confessions extracted by threats or promises are inadmissible at criminal trials has been a pillar of Florida criminal law for more than 165 years. This article pieces together the historical record of Simon's case, provides context for its events, and tells Simon's story.

The 1852 Pensacola Fires

On Sunday, October 17, 1852, between the hours of 2 and 3 a.m., the people of Pensacola were awoken by cries of fire at the Collins Hotel. (2) In the early 1850s, the Collins Hotel was known as "one of handsomest buildings" in Pensacola. (3) The conflagration, which reportedly began in a building used as the hotel's kitchen, spread rapidly to the hotel itself and destroyed it. (4) The fire then spread across the street and destroyed the home of Francisco Moreno. Initially, it was thought that the fire was accidental. (5) On Monday, October 18, 1852, between the hours of 1 and 2 a.m., Dr. R.T. Maxwell's home was discovered to be on fire and was soon consumed by the flames. (6) Later that same day, an unknown person attempted to set fire to the residence of a Mrs. Derry, but the perpetrator was discovered and escaped. (7) On Tuesday, October 19, 1852, at about 1 a.m., Pensacola's citizens were again called from their beds when the kitchen of Alex McVoy was discovered to be on fire. (8) Townspeople were able to extinguish the flames and save the home. (9) As observed by the Pensacola Gazette, these four fires, in just two days, caused the citizens of Pensacola to become "wrought up to a state of complete alarm and excitement," and "every means [was] adopted to discover the incendiary." (10)

Simon's Arrest

Four days after the fire that took place at Alex McVoy's home, Pensacola Mayor Joseph Sierra ordered the arrest of one of McVoy's slaves. His name was Simon. (11) Simon was brought to the mayor's office, where Mayor Sierra proceeded to interrogate him about the fires. (12) The Escambia County Clerk's records do not reveal why Mayor Sierra suspected that Simon had been involved in the fires. According to Mayor Sierra, Simon confessed that he had set fire to the homes of Dr. Maxwell, Derry, and McVoy. (13) In Mayor Sierra's words, Simon's confession was "voluntary" and "without any threats or coercion." (14) The next day, Simon was led into court in the custody of the city jailor.15 Based upon an affidavit signed by Mayor Sierra and McVoy, the Escambia County justice of the peace ordered that Simon be held in prison pending trial.16 Because the circuit court in Pensacola would not be back in session until the following June, Simon would have to wait eight months for his trial to begin.

The Florida Circuit Courts in the Early 1850s

Florida did not gain statehood until 1845, (17) and in the 1850s its judicial system was still in its early stages of development. Florida's first constitution divided the state into four judicial circuits: Western, Middle, Eastern, and Southern. (18) Each of these judicial circuits had one judge (19) who would travel from county to county at different times of the year to preside over both civil and criminal cases. (20) Pensacola was located in the Western Judicial District. (21) Barring the breakout of infectious disease, the Escambia County Circuit Court was to convene in Pensacola twice a year--once in June and once in October. (22)

According to the 1850 census, for Florida's more than 87,000 residents, there were 131 lawyers. (23) The road to becoming a Florida lawyer was very different in 1850 than it is today. At that time, there were only 15 law schools in the United States, (24) and none of them were located in Florida. (25) Most 19th century lawyers and judges in the United States acquired their legal education by apprenticing, or, in the terms of the day, by reading the law under the tutelage of practicing lawyers. (26) Bar exams at that time were oral and normally casual. (27) For example, according to one account, attorney Abraham Lincoln once conducted an Illinois bar exam as he scrubbed himself in a tub. (28) Lincoln's befuddled bar examinee stood by the tub and did his best to explain the law of contracts, but was unsure of whether he was actually taking the bar exam. (29)

Enslaved Persons in the Florida Courts

An enslaved Floridian rarely saw the inside of a courthouse. (30) Florida law considered enslaved persons to be personal property, and it placed wide-ranging powers in the hands of the slaveholder. (31) Consequently, it was the slaveholder who normally meted out punishments to the enslaved, and a slaveholder's justice was unchecked and arbitrary. (32) However, when particularly serious offenses like arson were involved, Florida law placed enslaved persons within the jurisdiction of the state's courts. (33) In the courtroom, enslaved Floridians did not enjoy the constitutional protections that white Floridians enjoyed. For example, the Declaration of Rights in Florida's 1838 Constitution guaranteed the accused in a criminal prosecution an impartial jury. (34) However, bigotry, which was both inherent to and endemic in Florida's slave-holding society, made Florida incapable of providing this fundamental right to its enslaved residents. Furthermore, despite the fact that the Declaration of Rights prohibited the state from inflicting cruel and unusual punishments, (35) Florida law mandated cruel and unusual punishments for the enslaved. One Florida statute required that a slave convicted of perjury was to have his or her ear nailed to a wooden post, and then to stand nailed to that post for one hour. (36) The slave's mutilated ear would then be severed from the head, (37) and the slave would receive 39 lashes on his or her bare back. (38) Notwithstanding these inequities and cruelties, it was in the courtroom that an enslaved Floridian stood the best chance for an impartial hearing in a criminal case. (39) Perhaps founded more on the Florida Legislature's intent to protect the property rights of slaveholders rather than any egalitarian intent to protect the rights of the enslaved, (40) Florida law directed that in the trial of any slave in the circuit court, the same rules of criminal procedure observed for white defendants should apply for enslaved defendants. (41) Enslaved defendants were afforded the right to a jury trial, (42) the right to counsel, (43) the right to confront witnesses, (44) the right to compulsory process for obtaining witnesses, (45) and the right to appeal. (46)

Simon's Attorney

Simon's attorney at trial and on appeal was Richard Lewis Campbell. (47) At the time of Simon's trial in June 1853, Campbell was 29 years old. (48) He had received his early education in Pensacola, but around age 17, his wealthy father sent him to a boys school in New York City. (49) Upon his return to Pensacola, Campbell began reading the law as an apprentice in a local firm. (50) A few years later, Campbell opened a law office. (51) Campbell was a beneficiary of, and an active participant in, Florida's slave system. At one time, Campbell's father had owned as many as 19 slaves. (52) In February 1858, Campbell himself sold a 22-year-old enslaved man by the name of Ben for the price of $1,200. (53) Notably, Campbell would become an ardent supporter of the Confederacy during the Civil War, swearing his allegiance to it in 1861 (54) and abetting the South's cause by donating money to equip Confederate troops for battle. (55) However, despite Campbell's participation in, and promotion of, Florida's slave system, the trial and appellate record from Simon's case supports the contention that Campbell fought hard for Simon's acquittal.

The Circuit Court Judge

The circuit court judge in Simon's case was Jesse J. Finley. (56) Judge Finley was born in Tennessee and briefly served as the mayor of Memphis in 1845. (57) In 1846, Finley moved to Florida, and on May 1, 1853, Florida Gov. Thomas Brown appointed him circuit judge of the Western Judicial Circuit of Florida. (58) During the Civil War, Finley would reach the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate Army; (59) after the Civil War, Finley would serve as a congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives. (60) In the late 1880s, Finley returned to the Florida bench as a circuit court judge in Marion County. (61)

Though Finley was admitted to the Tennessee Bar in 1838 and had been an attorney for approximately 15 years when Gov. Brown appointed him to the Florida...

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