The trial has entered “the determination of jury instructions.” In Missouri, the defense and the prosecution must draft their own requests for jury instructions, which the judge will express, or choose not to express, to the jurors after hearing both sides’ instructions. Jameson, no great legal researcher, probably delegates most or all of the work on jury instructions to his two aides, Kouns and Boulware.
Jury instruction is one of the most important parts of the trial process. By controlling how the judge instructs the jurors to make their decision, skilled attorneys can all but ensure a victory for their side.
One of most important parts of the defense’s legal instructions is that the jury must reach a verdict of not guilty unless it can conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Celia willfully killed Robert Newsom. Furthermore, the defense argues that Robert’s legal ownership of Celia didn’t entitle him to have sex with her. Finally, the defense argues that the jurors must acquit if they can conclude that Newsom was attempting to compel Celia to have sex against her will at the time of his death.
The defense makes a series of bold, even radical, points in its jury instructions. While their arguments seem uncontroversial and even conservative by contemporary standards, in 1855 it was groundbreaking for lawyers to argue that slaves had the right to defend themselves from sexual predation.
To bolster its claims, the defense cites a precedent in Missouri state law allowing for “any woman”—including, the defense argues, slaves—to use deadly force to protect her “honor.” In advancing this precedent, the defense raises some complicated questions about the legality of slavery itself: “the issue of who controlled sexual access to female slaves held tremendous economic … significance.” Predictably, the prosecution objects to the defense’s interpretation of the law, forcing Hall to choose between the defense and the prosecution’s sets of juror instructions.
The core of the defense’s argument is that slaves have rights under Missouri law—or, put another way, that slaves qualify as human beings. This point, of course, is precisely what slaveholders in the U.S. were disputing at the time: they argued that slaves qualified as property and nothing more. Therefore, the defense’s case was essentially an attack on the institution of slavery itself.
The defense objects to all but one of the prosecution’s instructions: that the jury acquit only if it can conclude that Celia “acted in self-defense.” However, the prosecution has already requested that the jurors be instructed that Robert Newsom made no threats to Celia’s life, meaning that its instruction on self-defense is a deliberate dead-end.
While McLaurin doesn’t say very much about the prosecution, it’s clear that Prewitt, the chief prosecutor, is a savvy lawyer. Here, he skews the jury instructions in such a way that he seems fair-minded and open to the possibility of a self-defense argument, while he’s already neutralized such arguments from the defense.
Judge William Hall now faces a tough decision: he must weigh both sides’ legal instructions, knowing that the case largely comes down to how he presents these instructions to the jurors. In the end, he favors the prosecution, delivering every one of the state’s instructions and ignoring all but three of the defense’s instructions. Legal precedent in Missouri is, for the most part, on the prosecution’s side. In prior cases, judges have refused to acknowledge that there is such a thing as the rape of a slave. Furthermore, Hall disagrees with the defense’s interpretation of the phrase “any woman” in Missouri state law—he argues that this phrase doesn’t apply to female slaves.
Hall makes a series of decisions that uphold the existing interpretations of Missouri law and hold that slaves are not, contrary to the defense’s argument, people. Hall’s interpretation of the law effectively destroys the defense’s case: if Celia isn’t a person, then she doesn’t have any rights to defend her life or her honor against Robert Newsom, her owner.
The defense has made a radical interpretation of Missouri slave law—far more radical, even, than the one advanced by the attorneys for Dred Scott in 1852 before the Missouri Supreme Court. Dred Scott is a runaway Missouri slave who flees to a free state. Scott’s attorneys argue that Scott has earned his freedom by entering a free state, but Missouri courts advance the more traditional interpretation of slave law, that slaves are their masters’ property regardless of where they go. This is the same legal interpretation that the Supreme Court infamously advances while ruling on the Dred Scott Case in 1857.
Although the defense isn’t successful in convincing Hall of its points, its case is impressive because it radically rethinks Missouri law. Nevertheless, the fact remains that legal precedent at the time is firmly on the side of American slave owners. Even the Supreme Court of the United States has officially ruled that slaveholders have the right to treat their slaves as property, undercutting Jameson’s ambitious arguments about slaves’ human rights.
The defense’s arguments pose a serious threat to slaveholders, and had they been accepted by Judge William Hall, they could have been used to dismantle the institution of slavery. Antebellum compendia of legal cases involving slaves include no cases—not one—of white owners raping female slaves. Of course, this isn’t because white owners didn’t rape their slaves, but because the law didn’t acknowledge such a crime. To acknowledge such a crime would mean acknowledging that slaves have certain rights that they can use against their owners, and that they have control over their own lives.
In effect, legal precedent in the United States in 1855 denies that there is such a thing as slave rape. A slave, the Supreme Court has recently decided, is a piece of property. For a court to recognize “slave rape,” then, would mean that slaves are legally considered human beings, with the right to control their lives and sexual partners. Tragically, such a point contradicts the very definition of slavery.
The sexual abuse of female slaves by white owners was a terrifying reality during the antebellum period. It partly explains why white women were among the most notable critics of slavery: white male rape of slave women “threatened the stability of the white family and emphasized the fact that in many respects married white women were little more than the property of their husbands.”
Earlier in the book, McLaurin argues that Virginia and Mary remain silent about their father’s rape because, as white women, they themselves are virtually powerless. Here, McLaurin flips this point on its head, arguing that it’s precisely because white women were powerless in antebellum society that they could be more likely to empathize with female slaves’ situation.
The defense’s arguments didn’t only threaten the core concept of slavery; they also threatened the economic practicalities of the institution. A law giving a slave woman the right to defend herself from rape could have been further interpreted to allow the slave woman to control who she married and whether she had children, thereby interfering with the master’s desire to produce a new generation of slave children.
Jameson’s arguments challenged the principle that a slave owner can control who a slave has sex with—a principle that lay at the core of the institution of slavery itself. In some cases, slaveholders would force slaves to breed with one another in order to ensure the birth of additional slaves.
The defense’s arguments posed one final challenge to antebellum society: they questioned the concept of the white man as a woman’s protector. At the time, white men were seen as the protectors of their families; furthermore, white slave owners were often expected to treat their slaves with a measure of respect. What this “respect” meant was difficult to define, but there was an unwritten rule, especially in the South, that property owners behave honorably to their entire “extended household.” The defense’s points about rape would have undermined the image of the white landowner as a wise, honorable father figure.
On a more abstract level, Jameson’s arguments posed a radical threat to slaveholders in antebellum America, because he made clear what slaves already knew: slaveholders weren’t honorable, magnanimous father figures. They were cruel tyrants who abused their power by owning other human beings, and in some cases sexually assaulting them.
On October 11, Jameson and his two aides appear before the court and move to “grant a new trial” on the grounds that Judge William Hall has been unfair in his rulings and interpretations. Hall doesn’t respond to the motion, but delays the reading of the verdict. On October 13, however, he reads the jury’s verdict: Celia will be hanged to death as punishment for murdering Robert Newsom.
Jameson is smart enough to realize that his case is finished: because of Hall’s interpretation of the jury instructions, he has no chance of convincing the jury to side with him. With nothing further to lose, Jameson moves (in vain) to grant Celia a new trial.
McLaurin then emphasizes a historical ambiguity: it’s unclear if Celia was still pregnant during her sentencing. However, it’s known that Celia delivered a stillborn baby sometime during her incarceration, either before or after the trial.
Celia’s life seems to consist of one tragedy after another—here, she loses her child soon after being sentenced to death.
Celia is sentenced to be hanged on November 16. Her only hope is that the Missouri Supreme Court will intervene on her behalf, some time before her execution.
The chapter ends on a note of uncertainty. Celia’s life is now in the hands of her defense attorneys—and the judges on the state Supreme Court.