Ex parte in the Matter of Wells
THIS was a motion for a writ of habeas corpus, founded on a petition by Wells, setting forth the following circumstances, viz: -
That Wells was convicted of murder, at the December term, 1851, of the criminal court for the county of Washington, District of Columbia, and was sentenced by said court to be hanged on the 23d of April, 1852, on which said 23d of April, Mr. Fillmore, then President of the United States, granted 'a pardon of the offence of which he was convicted, upon condition that he be imprisoned during his natural life, that is, the sentence of death is hereby commuted to imprisonment for life in the penitentiary at Washington.'That while under the constraint of duress of imprisonment and duress per minas he subscribed an acceptance of the pardon with the condition annexed.
That on the 18th of April, 1855, he applied to the circuit court of the District of Columbia, for a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted, and that court proceeded to inquire into the cause of his imprisonment.
That the circuit court decided that the President had power to commute the punishment of death, and remanded him to the penitentiary, where he has ever since been confined.
He therefore prayed this court to issue a writ of habeas corpus.
In this case, as in the case of ex parte Watkins, (7 Pet. 571,) it was admitted that all the facts existing in the case had been laid before the court, exactly as they would appear if the habeas corpus had been duly awarded and returned; so that the judgment which the court were called upon to pronounce, was precisely that which ought to be pronounced upon a full hearing upon the return to the writ of habeas corpus; and it was accordingly so argued at the bar.
It will be seen also by a reference to that case that the court decided that the judgment which was pronounced upon the petition of Mr. Watkins, was an exercise of appellate and not of original jurisdiction.
The petition for a habeas corpus was sustained by Mr. Charles Lee Jones for the petitioner, and opposed by Mr. Cushing, Attorney-General.
The subject is so fully discussed in the opinion of the court and the dissenting opinions of Mr. Justice McLean and Mr. Justice Curtis, that it is not thought necessary to give the arguments of counsel.
Mr. Justice WAYNE delivered the opinion of the court.