Philobiblon: A few Old Bailey symposium notes

Sunday, February 12, 2006

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 seeme’d 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.

3 Comments:

Blogger Penny L. Richards said...

Yes, I was interested to find that the only case of "idiocy" I included that proceeded to the death penalty was about stealing a HORSE, a different category of theft than stealing a ring, a bolt of cloth, a few thimbles. (In the same way auto theft is distinguished from other crimes today.)

But remember that my post is (almost of necessity) skewed to the folks for whom the "idiot defense" was successful--if the jury agreed that the idiocy claim was valid, they generally acquitted or recommended mercy. If a jury was unconvinced of a defendant's disability, I was less likely to believe it too, I guess, except where there was some elaboration about the claim. Cognitive disability status has always been a matter of shifting definitions and judgment calls--and for these folks, we only have the jury's judgment, and occasionally the witness testimony, to rely upon.

I too, often found the humanity of the juries heartening--and the humanity of the defendants' and victims' friends, when they were bearing witness. One case I included had extensive explanations from his friends about all the charitable help they tried to get him after his illness, without success. He was acquitted with the understanding that those same friends would conduct him to a hospital for serious medical attention.

2/12/2006 11:47:00 pm  
Anonymous Jonathan Edelstein said...

I've also noticed quite a few instances in which judges exercised leniency; in certain cases, they gave charges that all but commanded the jury to acquit. There's been a great deal written about the Bloody Code, but many people fail to appreciate how controversial it was even at the time, and how often the justice system resorted to various dodges to avoid imposing the death penalty.

2/13/2006 08:40:00 pm  
Anonymous Sharon said...

Yep. I could write about this for hours, but I won't bore you. OK, don't forget that plenty of people did get executed in 18th-century London, but it was a far smaller number than those who *didn't*, between all the juries passing reduced verdicts and judges recommending pardons. Good starting points: John Beattie, Crime and the courts 1660-1800 and Peter King, Crime, justice and discretion in England 1740-1820. More number-crunching than you can shake a stick at, but essential reads.

And I agree with Penny. I've read early modern cases which make me wonder what a modern psych. report would say, but they didn't fit contemporary notions of insane behaviour... so that was that.

2/14/2006 12:11:00 am  

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