People v. Christian Smith, 1817

1 American State Trials 779 (1814)
2 New-York City-Hall Recorder 77 (June 1817)

Priest-Penitent Confidentiality

A series of disputes that occurred over sixteen years between two Staten Island neighbors, Bornt Lake and Christian Smith, led to the death of one and the arrest of the other on a charge of murder. Lake had a reputation for being bad-tempered and quarrelsome, while Smith was known to be mild and peaceable. The disputes, some of which ended in litigation instigated by Lake, involved swine, cattle, fowl and other property.

On the night before Lake’s death, Christian Smith was restless and remained awake much of the night. Around dawn, he heard the sound of nuts being shaken from the walnut tree in his yard. Taking his hunting gun, he went outside to investigate. There was little light, but he was able to see a man under the black walnut tree picking up nuts and putting them in a basket. He recognized Bornt Lake who, upon realizing that Smith had seen him, immediately crawled away with the basket of nuts. Lake escaped through the fence marking the boundary of Smith’s land. Smith gave chase and upon arriving at the main road, demanded that Lake “Deliver up the nuts, and give up yourself like a man.” Lake again ran away, Smith followed, a struggle ensued and Lake grabbed the band and rammer from Smith’s musket. Lake, now holding the band and rammer in addition to the basket of nuts, took flight, and Smith gave chase. The gun, loaded with shot for geese and ducks, discharged, and Lake was mortally wounded. Smith was arrested and charged with murder. While confined in the village prison, Smith sent for the Rev. Peter J. Van Pelt and had several conversations with him.

The trial of Christian Smith for the murder of Bornt Lake commenced in May 1817 in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Richmond County, before Supreme Court Justice William W. Van Ness and Court of Common Pleas judges John Garretson and John Van Pelt. The prosecutor was District Attorney Thomas Lester and counsel for the defense were Messrs. Price, Wallace and Phoenix. People collected from every part of Staten Island to witness this trial, which had to be moved from the courthouse to the church to accommodate the crowd.

In the course of the trial, the Rev. Peter J. Van Pelt was called as a witness for the prosecution. Smith’s counsel objected upon the ground that in a case decided by De Witt Clinton, auricular confessions made to a priest of the Roman Catholic church were inadmissible as evidence against a prisoner. Justice Van Ness, however, drew a distinction between auricular confessions made to a priest during the religious rite of confession and those made to a minister of the gospel in confidence, merely as a friend or adviser. The Court admitted the minister’s testimony. The Court charged the jury that the evidence would warrant a finding of guilty, and the venire men deliberated for seven hours. They returned a verdict of “not guilty” and Justice Van Ness, incensed by the verdict, stated: I mean not to censure the jury who acquitted you — it is not my province so to do; I hope they will be able, upon future consideration, to reconcile their verdict to their consciences. The Judge had harsh words for Christian Smith, the man their verdict had freed.

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