Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Law and Order Part One: The Trial

Criminal trials in the eighteenth century were notoriously brief - rarely exceeding half an hour in duration. Most defendants awaited trial in prisons such as Newgate and were rarely informed of the exact nature of their charge as it was described in the indictment. All were expected to defend themselves as defense counsel was prohibited (though in actual fact, defense lawyers could technically be procured as they were permitted in partake in a limited capacity in felony trials from the mid 1730's onwards, however they were not allowed to speak on behalf of their client until 1836 under the Prisoner's Counsel Act) - according to the 18th century political writer and sergeant-at-law, this stipulation was owing to the belief:

It requires no manner of Skill to make plain and honest Defence, which in Cases of this Kind is always the best; the Simplicity and Innocence, artless and ingenuous Behaviour of one whose Conscience acquits him having something in it more moving and convincing than the highest Eloquence of Persons speaking in a cause not their Own...[whereas] the very Speech, Gesture and Countenance and Manner of Defence of those who are Guilty, when they speak for themselves, may often help to disclose the Truth.

The accused's innocence was not presumed. 

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