La Beau v. The People

34 N.Y. 223 (1866)

A case decided in 1865 enunciated a rule of cross-examination that is still cited in the courts today. The New York Court of Appeals held that if a witness is not the victim of the crime, the admissibility of her sexual misconduct turns on the court's discretion.

In 1865, Julius Denny was employed as a brakeman on the night freight train of the Northern Railroad and lived in the village of Ogdensburg, where he and his wife also ran a boarding house. The train on which he worked arrived in Ogdensburg at 1:30 a.m. each morning and started the return journey at 2:00 a.m. During the half-hour break, Denny routinely went home to pick up a pail of food that his wife prepared for him each evening. In the early morning of September 19, 1865, Denny picked up his dinner pail, which contained a meal of buttered bread, nut cakes and crackers. Upon returning to the train, he ate some of the bread and butter, and fell ill. When the train reached the Lawrence station, the physician who had been summoned found Denny in convulsions. The doctor concluded that Denny had been poisoned by strychnine, administered the proper remedies, and Denny recovered.

The chemical analysis of the food in the dinner pail detected the presence of strychnine, a deadly poison, in the buttered bread. Peter La Beau, a widower who had been living in the boarding house for two years, came under suspicion because, in the words of Judge Rufus W. Peckham, the intimacy between Susan Denny and Peter La Beau “was of the most shameless and profligate character.”

La Beau was indicted, and the case came to trial in February 1865 in St. Lawrence County in the court of Oyer and Terminer before Mr. Justice James and the justices of the Sessions. Susan Denny was the principal witness for the prosecution and testified that Peter La Beau, a blacksmith working in the railroad company’s shop, had spoken to her two or three times in the spring of 1864 about her husband's health, saying that he knew Denny was going to die, that she would be left a widow, and asking her whether, if that happened, she would marry him. In the summer of that year, she had a conversation with La Beau about procuring poison—he could not get the poison in Ogdensburg and asked her to go to Prescott, Canada, to procure it. This she did, and bought a bottle labeled as poison from Dr. Harding with the silver half dollar that La Beau had provided. On her return home, she stated that she went directly to La Beau's room, placed the poison on the washstand and locked the door to the room. When La Beau returned at noon, she told him that she had been to Prescott and handed him the key to his room. That evening, when she started to prepare her husband’s meal, she found two pieces of buttered fresh bread in the buttery and she put these aside for her husband with some cakes and crackers. When he arrive home, she packed them in his dinner pail.

On cross-examination, Mrs. Denny testified that she had a “carnal connection” with La Beau for some time before he came to board in her house. The defendant’s counsel then asked, “Were you in the habit of having sexual connection with other men than your husband before you had carnal connection with La Beau?” The district attorney objected to the question, and the court sustained the objection. The case went to the jury, which returned a verdict of guilt.

La Beau’s counsel appealed to the New York Supreme Court, challenging the trial court’s decision to sustain the District Attorney’s objection to his question to the witness, but that court affirmed the judgment of the court below. On appeal to the New York Court of Appeals, C. G. Myers, represented La Beau and District Attorney B. H. Vary represented the People.

The Court’s opinion was written by Judge Peckham, and in it he stated that the extent of cross-examination of a witness upon collateral matters is in the discretion of the trial court, and its rulings should not be disturbed absent a showing of an improvident exercise of discretion. Thus, if the witness is not the victim of the crime, the admissibility of her sexual misconduct turns on the court's discretion, and in this case the trial court properly excluded questioning of the victim's wife concerning her adulterous acts. Judge William B. Wright wrote a concurring opinion.

The extent of the cross-examination of a witness upon matters immaterial to the issue is in the discretion of the judge before whom the trial is conducted. Inquiries on irrelevant topics to discredit the witness, and to what extent a course of irrelevant inquiry may be pursued, are matters, in this State and in England, committed to the sound discretion of the trial court; and this is the rule as regards the right of inquiry into all matters wholly collateral and immaterial to the issue. The court in which the trial is conducted may permit disparaging inquiries on matters irrelevant to the issue, where the ends of justice would seem to demand it, and may exclude them without infringing upon any legal right of the parties; and the exercise of this discretion is not the subject of review, except in cases of plain abuse and injustice. These points were distinctly settled by this court in the case of the Great Western Turnpike Co. v. Loomis (32 N. Y. 127). In that case, the judgment of the plaintiffs was reversed by the county court, on the ground that the defendant was not permitted, on the cross-examination of the principal witness, to put questions irrelevant to the issue, but tending to degrade the witness; the avowed purpose of the inquiries being to show that he was unworthy of credit. The questions, as in this case, were excluded as irrelevant, on the objection of the plaintiff, without any claim of privilege by the witness. We affirmed the original judgment, holding that the court in which the cause is tried, in the exercise of its discretion, on objection of the party, without putting the witness to his claim of privilege, may exclude disparaging questions not relevant to the issue on the cross-examination of a witness, though put for the avowed purpose of impairing his general credit; and that decisions of this nature, involving mere questions of practice, order and decorum, are not subject to review on appeal, unless there be a plain abuse of discretion.

In the present case, it cannot be claimed that the prisoner's counsel was unjustly or illiberally restricted in the cross-examination of the witness. Indeed, the utmost latitude was given for irrelevant crimination. Questions calling for answers disparaging to the character of the witness, were permitted to be put and answered, until it appeared from her own statement, and admissions on the witness stand, that her moral character was most disreputable and odious. If the questions excluded had been allowed and answered in the affirmative, it would not have given a deeper stain to it, or have affected, in the least degree, the credit to be given to her testimony, whilst it would have needlessly involved the character of the persons named. For the latter reason, if no other, it was a proper exercise of discretion in the court to exclude the question. It would have been manifest injustice to have permitted the character of those persons to be assailed needlessly without the right, on their part, to speak in their own defense.

I am of the opinion that there was no error committed on the trial, prejudicial to the plaintiff in error, and that the judgment of the Supreme Court should be affirmed.

PECKHAM, J.:

Three grounds of error are alleged. First. It is insisted that there was no proof to sustain the indictment. The statute made it a felony for any one to administer or cause and procure to be administered any poison with intent, c.

The evidence shows that the poison was purchased with prisoner's money, and at his request. It further shows, not directly, but by circumstances quite as conclusive and satisfactory, that he put the poison on the bread and butter prepared for Denny, acting in concert with Denny's wife for that purpose. Denny was a brakeman on a railroad, and was in the habit of taking his dinner with him in a pail each night from his house. This practice was well known to the prisoner and Denny's wife. While both of them were present, this poisoned food was set apart with other food for Denny on a plate, and, on his coming home during the night, was put into his pail as usual by Mrs. Denny. The pail, with the poisoned food, was taken away by Denny, and about noon he partook of it and was poisoned. It is entirely clear, from the evidence, that this was done by the joint arrangement of the prisoner and Mrs. Denny. He had had illicit intercourse with her for some two years, and their design was to take Denny's life. There had been talk of a marriage in that event between the prisoner and Denny's wife. He was a widower, and she twenty-two years old. The prisoner left her room that night about one in the morning, as Denny came in about two, and remaining but a few minutes took off with him the poisoned food. Was this an administering or causing and procuring an administering within the statute? I cannot doubt that it was. The English statute is the same as ours, except instead of causing and procuring to be administered, it says, “or shall cause to be taken by any person, any poison,” c. Under that statute, it was held that putting the poison into the coffee pot with coffee, and telling her mistress she had put the coffee there for her breakfast, and the mistress partook of it, was causing it to be taken.

It was certainly never intended to confine this offense to the manual administering of the poison to a person. So construed, it would be substantially without effect, and would not reach the large class of offenders at whom it was aimed. The word administer has a far more extended meaning. Webster defines it, among other things, to mean, “to furnish, to give, to administer medicine, to direct and cause it to be taken.” As used in this statute, it was obviously intended to cover this whole ground – making it penal to furnish or cause it to be furnished and taken, to give or cause it to be taken. And it embraced and was intended to embrace every mode of giving it or causing it to be taken. A penal statute should be construed according to its plain import, to give it life according to its apparent purpose. In both letter and spirit I think the statute embraces this case.

The evidence very satisfactorily shows that the prisoner prepared this poisoned bread and butter to be taken by Denny. It was laid aside by his paramour, in his presence, with the other food for Denny. Prisoner caused her to put it in his pail, when he arrived to be taken by him, and it was taken accordingly.

The objection as to identifying the slung shot cannot be sustained. It was important to show the intention of the prisoner as to Denny – his murderous purpose. In such case it is not necessarily inadmissible, because it proves an independent crime. This has been repeatedly held.

The question to Mrs. Denny, were you not in the habit of having sexual intercourse with others than your husband before you had connection with the prisoner, was, I think, properly overruled.

This question went back more than two years prior to the commission of this offense, and could have little or no bearing upon the case. It would have added nothing to the depravity of her moral character as already proved, and would have had no tendency to impeach her credibility before the jury more than it was already impeached. Her loose conduct with other men two years before, would have thrown no light upon her purpose and conduct on the occasion in question.

The admissibility of this testimony, and also that offering to show her illicit connection with other named persons, has been lately held in this court to rest in the discretion of the court at the trial – only to be reviewed for abuse.

It is quite clear that the prisoner has suffered nothing by the rejection of this evidence, and that the discretion of the court at the trial was not abused.

Though I wish to say that, in my opinion, as a general rule, evidence, on cross-examination, tending to impeach the credibility of a witness, should be rejected with very great caution. Its exclusion can rarely be proper.

Judgment affirmed.



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