ABSTRACT

This article demonstrates that the verdicts reached in the 1808 murder trial of ex-slaves John Joyce and Peter Matthias applied procedural rules like that which applied to other inhabitants of the state as required by the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act. The defendants’ trial used due process and equal treatment under the law that then prevailed. What did not occur was the fullest application of case precedents or of provisions available under the commonwealth's 1794 Better Preventing of Crimes Act, which were within the discretion of the presiding judge. That their sentence was not just and equitable in present-day terms should not surprise any readers, but neither should the fact that those verdicts went largely unchallenged by contemporaries both in the black community and among abolitionists. This article hopes to illuminate that difference as it examines the complexities of the early nineteenth-century courtroom in Pennsylvania.

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