John Davis, Teresa Davis, & Mary Ann Davis v. Hezekiah Wood

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

Claim for Freedom Made

Descent from Free White Woman

Outcome

Verdict for Plaintiff February 28, 1809

Verdict for Plaintiff April 13, 1810

Appealed by Defendant April 14, 1810

Judgment Reversed February 1812

Judgment Affirmed February 1816

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Summary

John Davis, Teresa Davis, and Mary Ann Davis filed a petition for freedom against Hezekiah Wood, and the slaveholder retained Francis Scott Key. The Davises claimed that they were entitled to their freedom because they were the children of Susan Davis. Wood had sold Susan Davis to Caleb Swann, and she subsequently filed a petition for freedom arguing that her ancestor, Mary Davis, was a free white woman from England. The jury decided in her favor at a trial held on January 18, 1809. Her children, however, were still enslaved by Wood. They too won their jury trial in the D.C. Court a year later in December 1809, in part because the verdict in their mother's case was introduced as evidence. The judges instructed the jury that the verdict, having been admitted as evidence, was "conclusive evidence for the petitioners in this cause." Key eventually filed a writ of error appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the judges had erred in their instructions to the jury. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict in February 1812, holding that the verdict in one case could not serve as conclusive evidence in another unless the parties were the same. The Davises filed another case, and it too went to trial. This time the court disallowed hearsay testimony following the ruling in Mima Queen v. Hepburn. The jury found for the defendant slaveholder, and the petitioners filed a writ of error before the U.S. Supreme Court. On March 12, 1816, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the Mima Queen v. Hepburn ruling on hearsay and upheld the lower court's ruling denying the Davises their petition for freedom.

Parties

Key argued that Hezekiah Wood was not a "party" to Susan Davis' earlier suit against Swann, nor was there any legal relation tying him to Swann—for example, by kinship, lease, or contract. Therefore, the resolution of that case could not be used to conclusively render a judgment in Wood's case. Second, and possibly more devastating, Key argued that the verdict in Susan Davis' case was only proof that she was "free at the time of the judgment not that she was born free." Key suggested that she might have been manumitted after the birth of her children who were now petitioning for their freedom, and in that case their status would be unaffected by her manumission. Key pointed out that in Maryland, the only issue in a petition for freedom was "whether the petitioner be free at the time" the case was joined, "not whether she were born free." And in rather circuitous logic, Key suggested that in Maryland the practice was that the form of a petition stated that the petitioners were entitled to their freedom and held as slaves, but the Maryland Act of 1796 charged the jury with determining "those allegations which may be controverted." Key concluded that because the Davises had not stated any other allegations on their petition, "the only allegation controverted is that the petitioner is free." By Key's logic the only claim under this particular petition that could be assessed was whether Susan Davis was free at the time of her petition, not whether she was born free.

This case summary has been written and edited by project scholars.