Meet the Jurors

According to South Carolina statute, “all free white men of the age of twenty-one years, shall be liable to serve as jurors on an inquest on a dead body found within their District.” Typically the coroner, upon being notified of a suspicious death, would write to the local magistrate living nearest the body and order him to round up fourteen men and meet him at the site at a certain date and time. In any age, volunteers for jury duty were hard to come by. In 1842, the Andersonville Intelligencer published an article on the art of “Running Down a Juror”—a laughable (and undoubtedly exaggerated) account of an officer who had recently marched to the middle of town with the hope of rounding up a coroner’s jury only to find himself thwarted at every turn. At the first sight of him, the gentlemen loitering in clusters around the town square had scurried into offices and alleyways like rats diving for their holes. The day was miserably hot, and the officer was trying to maintain his dignity while perspiring freely and walking briskly as men acted like they were in an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. Finally the officer burst in upon a warehouse where “a crowd of gentlemen ... were happily conversing with each other about their hair-breadth escape, when lo, and behold! the officer brought his body in sight and gave them a fright,—they retreated, and the officer broke after them as fast as possible but was only able to overhaul one of the number.” “There is some skill required in running down a debtor,” the article concluded, "especially if he breaks towards Texas ... but when an officer with a warrant in hand undertakes to summon a jury of inquest, he has to use precaution, tact, and swift running.” Such scenes were undoubtedly more common in urban areas, where men were busy and had probably been drafted into service before. In rural areas, one can imagine jury duty being more diverting, especially if one knew the victim or had an interest in the case.

Once the jury was assembled at the body, the coroner would appoint one the fourteen men to serve as foreman and administer him the following oath: “You shall enquire and true presentment make on behalf [of] the State of South Carolina in what manner (A.B.) here lying dead, came to his death, and you shall deliver a true verdict thereupon, according to such evidence as shall be given, and according to your knowledge: so help you God.” Then he would turn to the rest of the jury and say, “the oath which your foreman hath taken on his part, you shall and truly observe and keep on your part: so help you God.”

The jury duly sworn, it was the witnesses turn to come forward to take their oath and tell what they knew. Who found the body? Had it been disturbed or moved? Did anyone know who it was? Did anyone have knowledge of how the death had occurred? Was anything suspicious? Did the deceased have enemies? Was the deceased depressed or suicidal? Were there wounds on the body that would suggest that a weapon had been used, and if so what kind of weapon? On it would go until everyone ran out of questions or things to say. Probably the proceedings were as formal as the coroner preferred. If deliberations and testimony went on too long, if key witnesses were missing, or if another location seemed relevant to the proceedings, he had the authority to adjourn the inquest and reconvene at a different point or at a later time. Usually the process was more pro forma; usually the witness testimony, the examination of the body, and the evidence given by the physician, if one were at hand, were sufficient to allow the jury to come to a sound conclusion.

This was Death as it existed in the wild, or in the darker heart of man.

Even in the simpler inquests, however, one has to imagine that all involved were sharing an intimacy with Death rarely seen today. Certainly most nineteenth-century Americans had a grittier familiarity with the failing body than we do. Women of the period were often the doctors and undertakers of their own home, tending the sick, washing and dressing bodies for burial, and sitting up with the deceased while the menfolk made the coffin by hand. To be sure, death at an inquest was less familiar. The victim was probably a stranger. Violence and decomposition may have taken a toll. Even the setting of the body—in the road, on the shore, under the joist from which it had been cut down—would have made the scene difficult to domesticate. This was Death as it existed in the wild, or in the darker heart of man.

There is only one case in the CSI:D sample where a jury was unable to come to a unanimous conclusion, the case of a runaway slave named Edward who had been found decapitated on the shoulder of the Charleston Road five miles south of Camden. Thirteen of the jurors preferred to think that Edward had died of unknown causes and his body had been set upon by animals. The weight of evidence, however, deeply implicated a man named John Geno, who had been charged with taking Edward to jail and had chained him by the neck to his buggy. One witness had overheard Geno threatening to drag Edward if he did not move more quickly, and the physician attending the inquest assured the jurors that no animal could not have done the kind of damage that was done to Edward.

To juror John Boykin, Jr. it seemed perfectly clear that Geno had made good on his threat and had dragged Edward so long and so violently that his head had been separated from his body. Boykin insisted on filing a ‘minority report,’ a dissenting opinion in which he rebuked his fellow jurors for failing to come to the obvious conclusion, asking in evident exasperation, "how many murderers would be suffered to prowl in a community" if every jury was as negligent as this one.

While this minority report is unique in the CSI:D sample, there are many other cases of jury nullification involving white juries and enslaved victims. (See The Civil Rights Cold Case Project, the effort by the Center for Investigative Reporting to revive old criminal investigations in which Civil Rights workers were gunned down in their driveways. To be sure, CSI:D’s cold cases are colder, but there is no statute of limitation on murder. We may not be able to prosecute the dead, but we can hold them to account.

NEXT: Coroners and the Enslaved

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