A few Old Bailey symposium notes
You'll see the post immediately below is my contribution to the Old Bailey Session Papers symposium. I've been enjoying reading the other contributions - do follow the link and check them out. They include other pieces that might be generally described as "social history", like mine, and also a quite astonishing piece of statistical work for those who prefer numbers.
I didn't want to get distracted from the point in my main post, but what was noticeable, as I conducted the research for mine, was how hard the Old Bailey juries tried to avoid reaching verdicts that would result in the death penalty. Frequently burglary charges were downgraded by say concluding that 4am was not "in the night" and therefore the charge could not be burglary, or coming to the same conclusion because a homeowner could not swear that a door or window had been locked. That's in addition to the well-known practice of greatly downgrading the actual value of the stolen goods.
In Penny Richard's piece there is the case of a man acquitted of stealing a ring because of mental disability, caused by medical and personal problems; in Sharon Howard's an account of an arson case: "In the 1737 trial of John Wright it emerged that he had told the examining JP that "he had been in a melancholy Way, and that he did this [i.e, started the fire], in Order to be Hanged he seemed to be in a very heavy dull Condition, and said, he wanted to get out of this Life." This was corroborated by other witnesses and John was acquitted." (Shows that the "death by police" practice about which there was a panic a couple of years ago is nothing new.)
But overall, despite the prevalence of the death penalty, the impression is certainly of juries trying to be as merciful and humane as they could possibly be, and recognising the circumstances that diminished responsibility.
Rather good for your faith in human nature, really.