Sunday, April 29, 2012

Court Of Oyer and Terminer - and May God Have Mercy Upon Your Soul


Earlier this week I was at the Delaware Public Archives reading microfilm on some cases tried in the Court Of Oyer and Terminer (a partial translation of the Anglo-French "oyer et terminer" would be "to hear and determine). In Delaware the court of Oyer and Terminer was around since the English predominated over the Swedes and Dutch. The court tried cases involving crimes punishable with death. In 1951 the Delaware Court of Oyer and Terminer was abolished and it's responsibilities and functions assumed by the Superior Court.

What strikes you in reading the outcome of the cases was how quickly the sentence was carried out after being determined, usually within two months in the case of death. Not all cases were guilty and not all received the death sentence. In the case of Woodrow Wilson Dickerson who was indicted and tried on Negligent Homicide by a Motor Vehicle, he received jail time of two months, a $200 fine and the cost of prosecution ($64.02.)

I would have to say most cases that I read (and it is difficult trying to read them as most of the records are in long hand) were given a death sentence and as I said, unlike today, the sentence was carried out shortly after being given. One case was Carl Asbury Skinner, colored, who on April 4th, 1927 did violently and felonously make an assault (rape) on Julia A. Bennett, a white woman. Julia Bennett lived outside of Bridgeville and was a 85 year old, crippled white woman. In Delaware, at that time, an attack on a white woman by a negro was punishable by death so his case went to the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Carl Skinner was 27 years old and had been in trouble most of his short life. He had previously been picked up and jailed in Maryland for larency but while waiting trial, with three other prisoner, cut a hole in the stone wall of the Easton Maryland jail and made his escape. Carl was the son of Robert Skinner and Annie Webb skinner and was born on March 18, 1900 in Maryland. The outcome was pretty much a given, in court on April 26th 1927 he was sentenced to hang and on May 27th he was hung. An almost standard phrase in sentencing was "you will be taken to some convenient place of private execution within the precincts of said prison enclosure and that you will then and there be hanged by your neck until you be dead, and may God have mercy upon your soul." The Certificate of Death noted he was hung but after the trap was released he lived another 23 minutes with a broken neck. He was buried in the potter's field in Georgetown Delaware. The day of execution had a Holiday like atmosphere as hundreds of farmers from the area poured in to Georgetown for the 10:30 AM hanging.

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