America's Death Penalty: Between Past and Present

By David Garland; Randall McGowen et al. | Go to book overview

7
The Convict’s Two Lives
Civil and Natural Death in the American Prison

REBECCA MCLENNAN

There is a death in deede, and there is a civill death, or a death
in law, mors civilis and mors naturalis.

—Edward Coke, The First Part of the
Institutes of the Laws of England
, 1628

In 1870 the warden and agent of the Virginia State Penitentiary at Richmond dispatched several dozen male prisoners to forced labor camps owned and operated by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company in Bath County, some miles from Richmond.1 That summer, while toiling on the railroad tracks beneath the hot Virginia sun, several of these prison laborers—including twenty-year-old Woody Ruffin, a former slave from Petersburg—made a break for freedom. The railroad company’s overseers thwarted their escape but not before one of the guards, Lewis F. Swats, had been killed.2 Upon recapture, the prisoners were immediately returned to the state penitentiary at Richmond. Ruffin was shortly thereafter tried before the city’s Circuit Court for the murder of guard Swats. The jury found him guilty as charged, and the judge sentenced him to the gallows.

Fighting now for his natural life, not just his freedom, Ruffin appealed his case to the Virginia Supreme Court. Counsel argued that the state’s Bill of Rights guaranteed “a man” prosecuted for a capital or other crime the right to a trial by an “impartial jury of his vicinage” and that Ruffin’s vicinage at the time of the alleged murder had been Bath County, where the crime occurred, and not the city of Richmond. The court ought, therefore, to overturn the Richmond court’s verdict and order a new trial by impartial jury in Bath County.3 (Presumably the defense attorney hoped that a Bath County jury would find Ruffin “not guilty.” Although Virginia had been “Redeemed” the previous year, black men still served on juries, and the majority of Bath County’s population was black).

-191-

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