104. A Bill Directing the Method of Trying Slaves Charged with Treason or Felony
Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that the Justices of every county shall be Justices of Oyer and Terminer, for trying slaves charged with treason or felony: Which trials shall be by five at the least, without juries, upon legal evidence, at such times as the sheriffs shall appoint, not being less than five, nor more than ten, days after the offenders shall have been committed to jail. No slave shall be condemned in any such case, unless three-fourths, or more, of the Justices1 sitting upon his or her trial, shall agree in opinion, that the prisoner is guilty.2 The value of a slave condemned to die, who shall suffer accordingly; or before execution of the sentence perish, to be estimated by the Justices triers, shall be paid by the public to the owner. One being detained in slavery, and having commenced an action to assert his freedom, shall be prosecuted and tried for any such crime, in the same manner as a freeman ought to be prosecuted and tried.3
Report description begins Report of the Committee of Revisors Appointed by the General Assembly of Virginia in MDCCLXXVI, Richmond, 1784 description ends , p. 77. MS (ViU); clerk’s copy. Text of Act as adopted in 1786 is in Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends xii, 345.
Bill presented by Madison 31 Oct. 1785, read twice, and postponed to Oct. 1786 session; brought up again 1 Nov. 1786, amended and passed by the House 30 Nov., and approved by the Senate 2 Dec. (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1785, 1828 edn., p. 12–15, 92; same, Oct. 1786, p. 16–17, 55, 67, 82, 127). The Act as adopted agrees with the Bill as proposed except for the important differences indicated below. Enforcement of Act was suspended until 1 July 1787 (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends xii, 410–11).
1. Instead of the words “unless threefourths, or more” the Act reads “unless all.”
2. The Act has the following additional clause at this point: “Provided always, That when judgment of death shall be passed upon any such offender there shall be thirty days at least between the time of passing judgment and the day of execution, except in cases of conspiracy, insurrection, or rebellion.” This, of course, merely extended to slaves the same provision accorded free persons convicted of treason or felony, though, of course, the corresponding section of Bill No. 103 had no such exception for cases of conspiracy, &c.
3. The Act has the following additional clause at this point: “No person having interest in a slave shall sit upon the trial of such slave.”