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Criminal Case Procedure in Judge Parker's Court

The Process of Justice: Criminal Case Procedure in Judge Parker's Court


Hollywood and Western writers have left the impression that justice in "Judge Parker's Court" was swift and harsh. This stereotype of frontier justice distorts what was a complicated and important process, based on the Constitution and federal law. Far from being the center of the court, Judge Parker was one member of a much larger staff at the federal court.

Below is an outline of the steps that a criminal case would follow, from start to finish. These steps reflect federal legal procedure of the late 1880s; in the last century the federal legal system has continued to evolve.


If you were arrested in the Western District of Arkansas on criminal charges....

Step #1: Complaint Filed

An individual (usually a deputy marshal) swears from "reliable information" in his possession that a crime has been committed. He must list who the suspect is, when and where the crime occurred and provide a description of the crime. The complainant asks for an arrest warrant to be issued ("I pray a writ").

In some criminal case files there are letters written by victims of crimes. These would serve as formal complaints and begin the process of arrest and trial of the suspect.

Step #2: Writ of Capias

Once a complaint has been received, the US Commissioner can issue a writ of capias (arrest warrant). The writ lists the suspect, charge and date when the crime occurred. The capias directs the US Marshal to apprehend the suspect and bring him/her to the US commissioner to answer the charge. The deputy marshal must certify that the writ has been served. This will dictate the fees he will collect.

A deputy in the Indian Territory could arrest without a warrant. This practice was not supposed to be a usual one and at times it resulted in serious complaints against the deputies for arresting without just cause. But in situations where a suspect might flee, immediate arrest, either with or without a warrant, was deemed a necessity.

Deputy marshals also collected evidence and found witnesses. A document indicating what each witness would state and the character of those witnesses could be completed.

Step #3: Lodged in Jail

This is basically a measure to hold you in a secure place until you appear before the US commissioner. Bail is issued in some cases.

Step #4: Proceedings before U.S. Commissioner

Today this is the US Magistrate (judge with limited functions and powers). Commissioner can determine that there is not enough evidence and ignore the charges. In that case, you are free to go.

Witnesses were brought before the US commissioner and testified under oath regarding the crime incident. The facts each witness stated were written down and then the witness signed his/her name indicating their agreement with the facts.

If you plead guilty before the US commissioner, he can sentence you to jail or fine

Step #5: Grand Jury

If you plead not guilty, the case goes before a grand jury. You may be lodged in jail or be allowed out on bond until the grand jury heard the case. The grand jury can indict or ignore. The indictment of a grand jury was called a true bill and stated the suspect, charge, date and place of crime and a description of the crime. If indicted, your case will go to a jury trial. If ignored, you are free to go.

Step #6: Jury Trial

Jury Trial, where your case would be heard by a petit jury. Your defense attorneys would argue your side of the case, and present witnesses and facts in your defense. The U.S. District Attorney or one of his assistants would prosecute the case against you. Juries in the Western District of Arkansas were all male and all drawn from Arkansas and not Indian Territory. However they did have both white and African-American members, but no Indians. This was one of the big complaints about the court from Indian Territory: "We are not judged by a jury of our peers."

The jury can declare you guilty or not guilty, or the jury may not reach a decision, in which case you would be retried. The verdict was written on the reverse side of the indictment. If not guilty, you are free to go.

Step #7: Sentencing

If guilty, you will be sentenced by Judge Parker. Criminal statutes generally provide a maximum sentence. The judge could determine if he would impose a punishment of the maximum sentence or be more lenient. For rape or murder convictions, the mandatory sentence was death. All federal executions in Fort Smith were carried out by hanging. For other crimes, the sentence could vary from monetary fines to jail time. Those sentenced to more than a year in prison were transported to facilities in other places: Little Rock, Detroit, Illinois, Ohio, and New York.

A mittimus was the court order which sent a convicted person to prison. It was often certified on the reverse side, either that the prisoner had been committed to jail or the penitentiary.

A death warrant was used in capital cases and also required certification.

Did You Know?

Parker seated at his bench in 6th Street courtroom

The only known image of Judge Parker in his courtroom is this one from the federal courthouse on Sixth Street which dates from the 1890s. There are no photographs of the courtroom located in the former military barracks.