Trial by Jury in Old Times.


By Thomas Frost.


WHEN we congratulate ourselves, as we are so apt to do, on the length of time the system of trial by jury has been established in England, and the safeguard it affords against attempts to strain the law to the prejudice of the accused, we are often unmindful of the fact that the institution has not always proved a safeguard when the court, acting under the influence of the Crown, endeavoured to obtain a conviction. It was only in the latter half of the sixteenth century that juries began to evince that determination not to yield their own judgment to the wishes of those in high authority, which became further developed in the course of the seventeenth. An interesting illustration of the old spirit of judges, and the new spirit of juries, is afforded by the trial of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, in 1554, on a charge of high treason, in conspiring the death or deposition of the Queen, and the seizure by force of arms of the Tower of London. The prosecution was conducted by Serjeant Stanford and the Attorney-General, Griffin, the former leading; and it is noteworthy that both they and Chief Justice Bromley questioned the prisoner in much the same manner as is still customary in France and Belgium, striving to procure evidence that would convict him out of his own mouth. The endeavour failed, and the only criminating evidence against the prisoner was contained in the alleged confessions of Winter and Crofts, who, however, were not called as witnesses.

The jury, after several hours’ deliberation, returned a verdict of not guilty, upon which the Lord Chief Justice addressed them in threatening tones, saying, “Remember yourselves better. Have you considered substantially the whole evidence as it was declared and recited? The matter doth touch the Queen’s highness and yourselves also. Take good heed what you do.” The jury were firm, however, and the foreman replied to the remonstrance of the bench, “We have found him not guilty, agreeable to all our consciences.” Then the Attorney-General rose, and addressing the court, said, “An it please you, my lords, forasmuch as it seemeth these men of the jury, which have strangely acquitted the prisoner of his treasons whereof he was indicted, will forthwith depart the court, I pray you for the Queen that they and every one of them may be bound in a recognizance of £500 a-piece, to answer to such matters as they shall be charged with in the Queen’s behalf, whensoever they shall be charged or called.” The court went beyond even this audacious request, for they actually committed the jury to prison! Four of them were discharged shortly afterwards, having so little moral stamina left as to make a humble confession that they had done wrong; but the remaining eight were brought before the Star Chamber and severely dealt with, three being ordered to pay a fine of £2,000 each, and the others £200 each.

In the following reign, in a case in which three persons were indicted for murder, and the jury found them guilty of manslaughter only, contrary to the direction of the court, the jurors were both fined and bound in recognizances for their future “good behaviour.” A decision of the Lord Chancellor, the two Chief Justices, and the Chief Baron, in the reign of James I., sets forth that when a person is found guilty on indictment, the jury should not be questioned; but when a jury has acquitted a prisoner against what the court holds to be proof of guilt, they may be charged in the Star Chamber, “for their partiality in finding a manifest offender not guilty.” In 1667, we find this view extended to the case of grand juries ignoring a bill on grounds which the court did not consider sufficient. Chief Justice Kelying in that year having fined a grand jury of the County of Somerset, for not finding a true bill against a man accused of murder; but, says the report, “because they were gentlemen of repute in the county, the court spared the fine.” This case, and several others in which the same judge had acted in a similar manner, were brought under the notice of the House of Commons, however, and that assembly resolved “that the precedents and practice of fining or imprisoning jurors for verdicts is illegal.”

Notwithstanding this resolution of the House of Commons, William Penn, and another member of the Society of Friends, named Mead, being indicted at the Old Bailey for having, with other persons unknown, unlawfully and tumultuously assembled in Gracechurch Street, in the City of London, the Recorder dealt with the jury in a manner which caused the illegality of fining jurors for their verdicts to be again brought into question. The indictment set forth that Penn, by agreement with and abetment of Mead, did in the open street speak and preach to the persons there assembled, by reason whereof a great concourse of people gathered and remained a long time, in contempt of the King and the law, and to the great terror and disturbance of many of His Majesty’s liege subjects. The trial took place before the Recorder, the Lord Mayor, and the Aldermen; and when witnesses had deposed that Penn had preached, and that Mead was there with him, the Recorder summed up the evidence, and the jury retired to consider their verdict. They were absent a considerable time, at length returning with the verdict that Penn was “guilty of speaking in Gracechurch Street.”

“Is that all?” the Recorder asked.

“That is all I have in commission,” replied the foreman.

“You had as good say nothing,” observed the Recorder, and the Lord Mayor added, “Was it not an unlawful assembly? You mean he was speaking to a tumult of people there.”

“My lord,” returned the foreman, “that is all I have in commission.”

“The law of England,” said the Recorder “will not allow you to part until you have given in your verdict.”

“We have given in our verdict,” returned the jury, “and we can give in no other.”

“Gentlemen,” said the Recorder, “you have not given in your verdict, and you had as good say nothing; therefore go and consider it once more, that we may make an end of this troublesome business.”

The jury then asked for pen, ink, and paper, and the request being complied with, they again retired, returning after a brief interval with their verdict in writing. They found Penn “guilty of speaking or preaching to an assembly met together in Gracechurch Street,” and Mead not guilty.

“Gentlemen,” said the Recorder, regarding the jury angrily, “you shall not be dismissed till we have a verdict that the court will accept; and you shall be locked up, without meat, drink, fire, and tobacco. You shall not think thus to abuse the court. We will have a verdict, or you shall starve for it.”

Penn protested against this course, upon which the Recorder ordered the officers of the court to stop his mouth or remove him. The jury not leaving their box, the Recorder again directed them to retire and re-consider their verdict. Penn made a spirited remonstrance. “The agreement of twelve men,” said he, “is a verdict in law, and such a one having been given by the jury, I require the clerk of the peace to record it, as he will answer at his peril. And if the jury bring in another verdict contradictory to this, I affirm they are perjured men in law. You are Englishmen,” he added, turning to the jury, “mind your privilege; give not away your right.” The court then adjourned to the following morning, when the prisoners were brought to the bar, and the jury, who had been locked up all night, were sent for. They were firm of purpose, and through their foreman persisted in their verdict.

“What is this to the purpose?” demanded the Recorder, “I will have a verdict.” Then addressing a juror, named Bushel, whom he had threatened on the previous day, he said, “you are a factious fellow; I will set a mark on you, and whilst I have anything to do in the city, I will have an eye on you.”

Penn again protested against the jury being threatened in this manner, upon which the Lord Mayor ordered that his mouth should be stopped, and that the gaoler should bring fetters and chain him to the floor; but it does not appear that this was done. The jury were again directed to retire and bring in a different verdict, and they withdrew under protest, the foreman saying, “We have given in our verdict, and all agreed to it; and if we give in another, it will be a force upon us to save our lives.”

According to the narrative written by Penn and Mead, and quoted in Forsyth’s “History of Trial by Jury,” this scene took place on Sunday morning, and the court adjourned again to the following day, when, unless they were supplied with food surreptitiously, they must have fasted since Saturday. The foreman gave in their verdict in writing, as before, to which they had severally subscribed their names. The clerk received it, but was prevented from reading it by the Recorder, who desired him to ask for a “positive verdict.”

“That is our verdict,” said the foreman. “We have subscribed to it.”

“Then hearken to your verdict,” said the clerk. “You say that William Penn is not guilty in manner and form as he stands indicted; you say that William Mead is not guilty in manner and form as he stands indicted; and so say you all.”

The jury responded affirmatively, and their names were then called over, and each juror was commanded to give his separate verdict, which they did unanimously.

“I am sorry, gentlemen,” the Recorder then said, “you have followed your own judgments and opinions, rather than the good and wholesome advice which was given you. God keep my life out of your hands! But for this the court fines you forty marks a man, and imprisonment till paid.”

Penn was about to leave the dock, but was prevented from doing so, upon which he said, “I demand my liberty, being freed by the jury.”

“You are in for your fines,” the Lord Mayor told the prisoners.

“Fines, for what?” demanded Penn.

“For contempt of court,” replied the Lord Mayor.

“I ask,” exclaimed Penn, “if it be according to the fundamental laws of England, that any Englishman should be fined or amerced but by the judgment of his peers or jury; since it expressly contradicts the fourteenth and twenty-ninth chapters of the Great Charter of England, which say, ‘No freeman ought to be amerced but by the oath of good and lawful men of the vicinage.’”

“Take him away,” cried the Recorder.

“They then,” continues the narrative, “hauled the prisoners into the bail-dock, and from thence sent them to Newgate, for non-payment of their fines; and so were their jury. But the jury were afterwards discharged upon an habeas corpus, returnable in the Common Pleas, where their commitment was adjudged illegal.” Even then, judges appear to have remained unconvinced of the illegality of the practice, or stubborn in their desire to enforce their own views or wishes upon juries; for the question was not regarded as finally settled until the decision in the Court of Common Pleas was clinched, in the same year, by a similar judgment of the Court of King’s Bench.

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