The legal system in North Carolina at the time of the Dooley case

At the bottom of the judiciary system were local courts, presided by justices of the peace. These justices of the peace were normally not lawyers ort had any education in legal matters, but was often recruited for the job among the local wealthy and educated class, who supported themselves by other means, as the job was unpaid. Justices of the Peace could try minor offenses such as matters related to debt, disputes between owners and tenants etc but not criminal cases. Moreover, justices of peace presided over hearings, arraingments and so on. The procedures in justice of the peace courts was often much more informal than in the higher courts. Cases that started in a court presided by a justice of peace, could usually be brought before a proper court without a formal appeal. In the case against Tom Dooley it was the justice of the peace in Elkville, who initially issued the arrest warrant against Tom and three others, and later interrogated the detainees after the arrest, and when Lauras body was found he presided over the examination and hearing, but besides that he had nothing to do with the case. At present, the justice of the peace concept has been abolished in most US states and the functions transferred to other parts of the legal system like magistrate courts or municipal courts. In the states that still maintain the function, the justices of peace are normally elected and paid, not appointed and unpaid.

Old Courthouse of Wilkes County

The old Wilkes County Courthouse in Wilkesboro is today serving as The Wilkes Heritage Museum. The courthouse was built in  1903 and it replaced the older courthouse on the same site, where Tom Dooley's Grand Jury hearing took place in 1866. Behind the courthouse and part of the museum is Wilkes Old Jail from 1859, where Ann Melton and Tom were incarcerated before they were transferred to Statesville.

Above the justice of the peace courts were district courts and superior courts with unlimited jurisdiction. They could try all kinds of cases including criminal cases that lead to capital punishment. The individual counties did not have their own legal system and judges. Instead, the state was divided into a number of  districts, which included several counties. District judges traveled around between each county seat in their district and presided over the district courts/superior courts in each county. Each court had two terms per year, one in the spring and one in the fall. Such a semi-annual legal term lasted typically one week or less in each county, and during this time the judge had to hear and judge all the cases which had been gathered in the county since the last term. This means that each trial didn't take up much time, normally only a few hours at most, which is another indication that Tom Dooley's case was special as two whole days were spent on it, in each of the two trials.

A term typically began on a particular day, which was defined somewhat cryptic. For example the fall term 1866 of the Superior Court of Wilkes County opened on "the fifth Monday after the last Monday in August." Without knowing for sure, I would imagine that the judges began their tour of the districts on the last Monday in August, and the number of Mondays after described so when the individual courts were visited. Fall term 1866 in Iredell County opened on the seventh Monday after the last Monday in August.

In the case against Tom Dooley no less than five superior court judges were involved, but only two ruled, Ralph P. Buxton and William Shipp. Anderson Mitchell set the final date for the execution, while Robert B. Gellam and Alexander Little both only postponed the trial until the next term due to missing witnesses.

Beside these lower courts, the governor of the state could establish special courts, like it was done in early 1868 in Iredell County, where the governor established a Court of Oyer and Terminer (litterally "to hear and determine") to speed up the hearing of the many delayed cases in the county. This Court of Oyer and Terminer had the same powers as the superior court.

Above the  Superior Court was the State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court was then as it is now based in the state capital of Raleigh. Neither then nor now did the Supreme Court ruled on guilt or sentencing. No witnesses were heard, and no lawyers were present. The Supreme Court's only task was (and is) to determine whether there has been committed procedural errors in the lower courts, and whether the law has been interpreted correctly. Decisions of the Supreme Court could (and still can) not be appealed further within the state's legal system. So it was in the 1860s and so it is today. The Supreme Court was headed by three judges, appointed for life by the state's General Assembly. The three judges elected a Chief Justice among them. This was case in 1868 when Tom's final appeal to the Supreme Court was ruled. The chief judge at the time was Richard Mumford Pearson, who served from 1858 to 1878. In 1868, the number was increased to six associate judges, and at the same time it was introduced that Supreme Court judges were no longer appointed by the Governor, but should be elected. Also the chief judge was directly elected by the voters, not elected among the associate judges like before.

Above all other courts is the United States Supreme Court, whixh is the final appellate court for both state and federal courts.

Tom Dooleys case was appealed twice to the North Carolina Supreme Court. The first time after he was found guilty in Superior Court in October 1866 and the second time after he was found guilty again by a Court of Oyer and Terminer in January 1868. Both appeals were before the introduction of the six associate judges and an elected Chief Justice. The case never went to US Supreme Court and it would predumably have been turned down, as it was not a matter of principles.

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