Smiths v. Shoemaker/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

84 U.S. 630

Smiths  v.  Shoemaker

The admission of the letter having at its head, as a date, 'September 10th, 1845,' was objected to, and an exception taken, on the ground, among others, that the plaintiff could not introduce his own declaration, or that of those under whom he claimed, to show that the ancestor of the defendants had entered under the person making the declaration. Other and more specific grounds of objection were taken, but it is not necessary to mention them here, for it is certainly a sound principle of evidence that such a declaration as this, whether oral or in writing, is inadmissible, unless some exception to the general rule be shown. And this disposes of one of the arguments against the validity of the exception, namely, that while seven distinct objections are stated in the bill of exceptions, none of them are sound, though the letter may really have been inadmissible. We are of opinion that the one above mentioned is sufficient, unless the record shows some matter which would obviate it.

The objection is supposed to be removed by treating the letter as a part of the transaction by which Hamilton Smith obtained possession of the property, and thus coming within the rule of exceptional evidence admitted as part of the res gestae.

But the difficulty is that there is no evidence that the letter was a part of that transaction. The precise time when Hamilton Smith took possession is not stated, save that it was in 1845, and after the 28th of May. The date found in the letter itself is relied on to show that it was written about the time possession was taken, and perhaps, if the other essential requisites were proven, the time would be near enough to let it go to the jury. But it is obvious that, as the date is only proved by the letter, the fact that the letter was written and received, must be proved before the date can be used to justify the admission of the letter. Many authorities are cited to show that, while the date found in an instrument may be disputed or disproved by other evidence, it is prim a facie to be taken as the true date. All these cases, however, have reference to the case of an instrument which has been admitted in evidence on other and sufficient ground, and where the true date has become important on some other issue than the admission of the letter. It is a most vicious example of reasoning in a circle, to admit the letter to prove the time when it was written, and assume this to be the real date for the purpose of admitting the letter.

Another objection is, that there is nothing in the record to show that the letter was delivered to Hamilton Smith, or was ever in his possession or acted upon by him. It is not shown how the plaintiff came into possession of it, or from what source it was produced by his counsel at the time of the trial. It would violate nothing found in the record to suppose that the letter was written and delivered to the plaintiff by its supposed author on the same day it was read in evidence. When a party seeks to justify in a court of review the admission of such ex parte declarations of himself or his vendor, against the objection of the other side, he must show by the record some circumstance which would obviate the manifest soundness of the objection.

It is said, however, that, conceding the letter to have been improperly admitted, there is enough found in the record to show that the verdict was right, if it had been excluded, and, therefore, its admission worked the defendants no prejudice.

Two letters from Hamilton Smith to his brother are relied on to show his admission, as late as 1856, that he held under that brother, and acknowledged his superior title. And it must be conceded that they have a strong tendency to establish that proposition. But they are not conclusive; and, in the face of the statement that the defendants introduced parol evidence tending to show that Hamilton Smith entered under a parol gift of his father. it is impossible to say the letter worked no prejudice. This parol evidence is not given in the bill of exception, and may have been very strong. It is possible, nay, probable, that the jury, balancing between the weight of the parol evidence on one side and the letters of Hamilton Smith on the other, may have rested their verdict on this letter, as the best evidence of what really occurred at the time possession was taken. The jury might very well have said that, if this letter was written and received about the time the possession was taken-written by the man who had title to the land to the party about to enter into possession-they would presume that the latter entered on the premises under the permission given in the letter, while they might disregard the improvident admissions of a weak-minded and dependent man made to his brother ten or twelve years later.

We repeat the doctrine of this court laid down in Deery v. Cray, [5] that while it is a sound principle that no judgment should be reversed on error when the error complained of worked no injury to the party against whom the ruling was made, it must appear so clear as to be beyond doubt that the error did not and could not have prejudiced the right of the party. The case must be such that this court is not called on to decide upon the preponderance of evidence that the verdict was right, notwithstanding the error complained of.

Other errors are assigned as to the charge of the court, but, as no exception was taken to that charge, it cannot be considered; nor do we deem the errors alleged as growing out of the prayers asked and refused likely to occur again, even if they are fairly presented by the record now.

For the error in admitting the letter objected to the judgment is reversed and the case remanded for


Mr. Justice DAVIS was absent at the argument.


^5  5 Wallace, 795.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).