State v. John Armmons
About This Case
In 1861, the Florida Supreme Court considered the case of John Ammons v. The State of Florida, which originated from the Holmes County Circuit Court.
In 1859, John Ammons murdered Samuel McQuage near Ucheeanna in Walton County, Florida. All parties in the case agreed that Ammons killed McQuage, however, they disagreed on whether or not he had acted in self-defense.
This case took a circuitous route through the legal system. The initial jurisdiction fell upon Holmes County. Ammons requested a change of venue because he feared he could not “have a fair and impartial trial in the county of Holmes, on account of the prejudice existing against him.” The change of venue was granted, first to Jackson and then to Calhoun County. At the final stop, Ammons raised concerns about the proper transfer of documents during the change of venue. His legal representation claimed that the case files were rendered “imperfect, defective, erroneous and unintelligible” as a result of careless transfer. The judge disagreed.
Several witnesses testified on various aspects of the night in question. A.C. Munroe had been with Ammons and McQuage prior to the murder. He met with McQuage about a land deed in Ucheeanna. After the men discussed the deed, McQuage prepared to leave with Ammons. Munroe testified that McQuage asked Ammons to discharge his gun prior to their departure, as he did not like to travel with loaded weapons. Munroe believed that the men, while not drunk at the time, left with a “half gallon” of liquor. He did not perceive any tension between the two at that point.
Ammons and McQuage then traveled from Ucheeanna to the distant Sutley home. Witnesses Harry and Nancy Sutley and Joseph Carroll described a similar scene. The two men appeared to be possibly drinking, but not antagonistic towards each other. Suddenly, a fight broke out between the two men. Ammons pushed McQuage to the ground, stabbed him with a knife, and hit him with the stock of a rifle. Shortly after the struggle ensued, Ammons shot McQuage dead.
The witnesses at the Sutley home were very close to the scene, but how close became a matter of debate in the case. Were they close enough to determine exactly what happened? Was it possible to determine if Ammons acted in malice, or in self-defense?
Joseph Carroll told the court that he heard Ammons ask McQuage whether he considered him to be dishonest, presumably referring to the request concerning his loaded gun after the meeting with Munroe in Ucheeanna. McQuage apparently replied with a comment to the effect that, had he insulted Ammons it was on account of drunken foolishness. Ammons retorted that McQuage had insulted him earlier that day. McQuage replied that he had said it, meant it, and would say it again. According to Carroll, this is the point at which the fight broke out.
After he delivered the fatal blow against McQuage, Ammons reportedly remained at the scene for some time before departing for his father-in-law’s house. Ammons continued to heap insults on his victim and one witness said they heard Ammons say that “he had killed a d—n Scotchmen and would kill two or three more before he would be satisfied.”
During the trial, the defense maintained that Ammons had acted in self-defense. The State argued that he had financial motivations, either related to the land deed, the $55 in gold said to have been in McQuage’s possession at the time of the murder, a pork barrel the two men were transporting, or perhaps a disagreement stemming from an unfavorable outcome in a card game. A few bits of evidence suggest that McQuage may have insulted Ammons’ parents at some point prior to the murder.
Based on the evidence presented in the case, primarily the testimony of several eyewitnesses, the court found Ammons guilty of murder, and sentenced him to death. This case is rich in detail and contains ample testimony on the nature of violence on the Florida frontier.