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Justice for All: An Exploration of Race in DC's Criminal Court


The United States was founded on principals of liberty and justice, but failed to apply these grand ideals to all its citizens. In 1843, thousands were enslaved and thousands more were treated as second-class citizens. The rights of black people in America to fight for change and address their grievances in court were limited. Some "early statutes mentioned ‘all negroes and other slaves’ as subject to the same provisions of law."* This group classification was not sustainable, so legislation designed to push free blacks out of the public view was enacted. The side effect of this specific legislation was that outside of the scenarios it covered, free blacks had largely the same rights as whites.*

In the courts, all free people were to be treated the same way. The law as of 1828 stated that the "person of every freeman being entitled to perfect protection from the exercise of illegal force," any unlawful violence was considered battery.** Exploring the differences in documentation of assault cases on three different classes of citizen gives insight into the way the law was enforced that is not detailed in the legal codes themselves.

In July 1843, two unusual assault cases were brought before the D.C. criminal court, committed by white people on two African-Americans, one enslaved and the other free. In August, a very ordinary assault case committed on a white man by two white men appeared before the court. When compared to the detailed documentation of the cases involving the unnamed enslaved man and the free African-American, named Wilham Smith, the stark simplicity of the documentation of the assault on John Liegenhain, the white man, highlights the charged nature of dispensing justice in a race-driven society.


*Wright, James Martin. The free Negro in Maryland, 1634-1860. New York, 1921. Slavery and Anti-Slavery. Gale. Oberlin College. 12 July 2017 

**Livingston, Edward. A system of penal law for the United States of America : consisting of a Code of crimes and punishments : a Code of procedure in criminal cases : a Code of prison disciplines ; and a Book of definitions : prepared and presented to the House of Representatives of the United States. Washington, 1828. 446pp. American Law: Criminal Law.


 Shira Cohen, Junior Researcher, OC History Lab 2017

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