The 1771 case of Rex v. Stapylton (K.B.1771) was the last slavery case before the James Somerset v. Charles Stewart habeas case. Stapylton involved the attempted forcible deportation of an African slave named Thomas Lewis. At the 1771 trial before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, Stapylton’s defense rested on the basis that as a slave was property, his assaultive acts against Lewis were not criminal offenses. In Stapylton… Mansfield allowed extensive testimony by Lewis regarding his life history as it related to Stapylton’s alleged title. Stapylton, the alleged owner of Lewis, attempted to deport him forcibly.
During the trial, Mansfield endeavored to coax Stapylton to settle with Lewis by stating that “being black will not prove the property” and outwardly doubted the legal sufficiency of his defense. And in the course of summing up, the Lord Chief Justice stated, “whether they [slave owners] have this kind of property or not in England has never been solemnly determined.” It appears quite likely that by a “solemn determination,” Mansfield had in mind taking a special verdict and hearing arguments before the Twelve Judges, a procedure used at that time for determining essential points of law. It is an en banc tribunal where all twelve justices of England’s three high courts, King’s Bench, Common Pleas, and Exchequer, presides. No such solemn determination had ever occurred regarding slavery in England. Mansfield appeared to have been willing to create a process that could lead to such determination.
Lord Mansfield tested Stapylton’s title based on his view of what English law required, sub silentio determining the slave’s status under English law. Still, in the end, Mansfield directed the jury that they should presume Lewis was a free man unless Stapylton proved otherwise. Mansfield instructed the jury that if they found that Stapylton had a property interest in Lewis, they should bring in a special verdict; if not, “you will find the Defendant Guilty.” The all-white jury convicted Stapylton. Mansfield credited most, if not all, of Lewis’s testimony, not just his testimony on the “chain of ownership” issue, and very clearly communicated his belief in Lewis’s credibility to the jury. And to the jury, Mansfield stated that “I think you have done very right. I should have found the same verdict… he was not the property” [of Stapylton]. Mansfield’s holding in Stapylton became a controlling precedent.