Mima Queen & Louisa Queen v. John Hepburn

United States. Supreme Court - Washington (D.C.)
United States. Circuit Court (District of Columbia) - Washington (D.C.)

Claim for Freedom Made

Descent from Free Woman

Outcome

Verdict for Defendant June 26, 1810

Appealed by Plaintiff June 29, 1810

Judgment Affirmed February 1813

Case Documents

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Defendant(s):

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Case Narrative

Mina (or Mima) Queen filed a petition for freedom on January 8, 1810 on behalf of herself and her minor child, Louisa. She claimed that her great grandmother, Mary Queen, was a free woman of color. All parties agreed that Mina and Louisa were descendants of Mary Queen. The defendant John Hepburn claimed that Mary Queen was held as a slave throughout her life. Little is known about the defendant John Hepburn, although he appears to have been sued in Charles County, Maryland, in 1800 by his creditors. The Hepburns were a prominent family in Prince George's County, and it remains unclear how they came to hold Mina Queen or when John Hepburn came to Washington, D.C. Queen's attorney, Francis Scott Key, called Simon Queen, a free black, as a witness. The D.C. Circuit Court allowed the testimony of Simon Queen even though he testified against a "free Christian white man," holding that "a freeborn negro is a competent witness in a case of freedom." Key also called three other witnesses, two white women, and Gabriel Duvall, the former Chief Judge of the General Court of Maryland, a former Congressman, and the attorney for the Queens in 1790s freedom petitions in Maryland. The D.C. Court disallowed as evidence some critical testimony about Mary Queen's origins and status in depositions taken in the 1790s in Maryland cases brought by Queen relatives. The court ruled parts of these depositions to be "hearsay" and inadmissible. In June 1810 at trial, the jury found for the defendant slaveholder, John Hepburn. Queen appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court on a writ of error, arguing that the hearsay testimony should have been allowed in a petition for freedom case. Francis Scott Key's writ of error stated, "After a lapse of 100 years better evidence than this cannot be expected. The general reputation of the fact that the ancestor was free is sufficient to rebut the presumption arising from color, and throws the burden of proof on the other side." The Supreme Court heard the case in February 1813. The majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Marshall denied the appeal and upheld the lower court, arguing that "hearsay evidence is incompetent to establish any specific fact, which fact is in its nature susceptible of being proved by witnesses who speak from their own knowledge." Gabriel Duvall, newly appointed to the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice, rendered a dissenting opinion. Mina Queen's petition for freedom was unsuccessful. The fate of Mina and Louisa Queen after 1813, however, remains unknown.

Commentary

Naming

Queen's attorney, Francis Scott Key, handwrote three documents, including the original petition for freedom and summons, and spelled her name "Mina"—a name that appears in several generations of the Queen family. The Minute Book entry for the D.C. Circuit Court spelled her name "Mina." William Cranch's Reports of Cases Civil and Criminal in the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, from 1801 to 1841 (1852) p. 3 spelled her name "Mima."

Hearsay

In some respects, the D.C. Court offered a lenient series of rulings for the plaintiffs. Black's Law Dictionary, 4th ed. defines hearsay evidence as that which does not come from "the personal knowledge of the witness, but from the mere repetition of what he has heard others say." In this case, the Court allowed some hearsay testimony but struck out double hearsay—that is statements that the witness heard someone heard from another person. Although the Court disallowed the seating of a juror who expressed "his detestation of slavery," the Court allowed the testimony of Simon Queen, a free negro, even though the defendant was white. Cranch reported on Priscilla Queen's case his court's ruling regarding hearsay, "The declarations of an ancestor, while held as a slave, cannot be given in evidence. Declarations of deceased persons, that the ancestor was free, may be given in evidence, to show that the ancestor was in fact free, that is, not held in slavery." As a result, a major portion of the Fredus Ryland deposition, the only deposition that contained evidence of Mary Queen's own declarations of her origins, was disallowed. And substantial portions of the depositions of Caleb Clark, Thomas Warfield, and Richard Disney, all favorable to Queen, were omitted. See also Priscilla Queen v. Rev. Francis Neale .