Amendments V and VI

Document 14

William Blackstone, Commentaries, 4:298--307, 317--19, 342--50, 352--55


I. A presentment, generally taken, is a very comprehensive term; including not only presentments properly so called, but also inquisitions of office, and indictments by a grand jury. A presentment, properly speaking, is the notice taken by a grand jury of any offence from their own knowledge or observation, without any bill of indictment laid before them at the suit of the king. As, the presentment of a nusance, a libel, and the like; upon which the officer of the court must afterwards frame an indictment, before the party presented as the author can be put to answer it. An inquisition of office is the act of a jury, summoned by the proper officer to enquire of matters relating to the crown, upon evidence laid before them. Some of these are in themselves convictions, and cannot afterwards be traversed or denied; and therefore the inquest, or jury, ought to hear all that can be alleged on both sides. Of this nature are all inquisitions of felo de se; of flight in persons accused of felony; of deodands, and the like; and presentments of petty offences in the sheriff's tourn or court-leet, whereupon the presiding officer may set a fine. Other inquisitions may be afterwards traversed and examined; as particularly the coroner's inquisition of the death of a man, when it finds any one guilty of homicide: for in such cases the offender so presented must be arraigned upon this inquisition, and may dispute the truth of it; which brings it to a kind of indictment, the most usual and effectual means of prosecution, and into which we will therefore enquire a little more minutely.

II. An indictment is a written accusation of one or more persons of a crime or misdemesnor, preferred to, and presented upon oath by, a grand jury. To this end the sheriff of every county is bound to return to every session of the peace, and every commission of oyer and terminer, and of general gaol delivery, twenty four good and lawful men of the county, some out of every hundred, to enquire, present, do, and execute all those things, which on the part of our lord the king shall then and there be commanded them. They ought to be freeholders, but to what amount is uncertain: which seems to be casus omissus, and as proper to be supplied by the legislature as the qualifications of the petit jury; which were formerly equally vague and uncertain, but are now settled by several acts of parliament. However, they are usually gentlemen of the best figure in the county. As many as appear upon this panel, are sworn upon the grand jury, to the amount of twelve at the least, and not more than twenty three; that twelve may be a majority. Which number, as well as the constitution itself, we find exactly described, so early as the laws of king Ethelred. "Exeant seniores duodecim thani, et praefectus cum eis, et jurent super sanctuarium quod eis in manus datur, quod nolint ullum innocentem accusare, nec aliquem noxium celare." In the time of king Richard the first (according to Hoveden) the process of electing the grand jury, ordained by that prince, was as follows: four knights were to be taken from the county at large, who chose two more out of every hundred; which two associated to themselves ten other principal freemen, and those twelve were to answer concerning all particulars relating to their own district. This number was probably found too large and inconvenient; but the traces of this institution still remain, in that some of the jury must be summoned out of every hundred. This grand jury are previously instructed in the articles of their enquiry, by a charge from the judge who presides upon the bench. They then withdraw, to sit and receive indictments, which are preferred to them in the name of the king, but at the suit of any private prosecutor; and they are only to hear evidence on behalf of the prosecution: for the finding of an indictment is only in the nature of an enquiry or accusation, which is afterwards to be tried and determined; and the grand jury are only to enquire upon their oaths, whether there be sufficient cause to call upon the party to answer it. A grand jury however ought to be thoroughly persuaded of the truth of an indictment, so far as their evidence goes; and not to rest satisfied merely with remote probabilities: a doctrine, that might be applied to very oppressive purposes.

The grand jury are sworn to enquire, only for the body of the county, pro corpore comitatus; and therefore they cannot regularly enquire of a fact done out of that county for which they are sworn, unless particularly enabled by act of parliament. And to so high a nicety was this matter antiently carried, that where a man was wounded in one county, and died in another, the offender was at common law indictable in neither, because no complete act of felony was done in any one of them: but by statute 2 & 3 Edw. VI. c. 24. he is now indictable in the county where the party died. And so in some other cases: as particularly, where treason is committed out of the realm, it may be enquired of in any county within the realm, as the king shall direct, in pursuance of statutes 26 Hen. VIII. c.13. 35 Hen. VIII. c. 2. and 5 & 6 Edw. VI. c. 11. But, in general, all offences must be enquired into as well as tried in the county where the fact is committed.

When the grand jury have heard the evidence, if they think it a groundless accusation, they used formerly to endorse on the back of the bill, "ignoramus;" or, we know nothing of it; intimating, that though the facts might possibly be true, that truth did not appear to them: but now, they assert in English, more absolutely, "not a true bill;" and then the party is discharged without farther answer. But a fresh bill may afterwards be preferred to a subsequent grand jury. If they are satisfied of the truth of the accusation, they then endorse upon it, "a true bill;" antiently, "billa vera." The indictment is then said to be found, and the party stands indicted. But, to find a bill, there must at least twelve of the jury agree: for so tender is the law of England of the lives of the subjects, that no man can be convicted at the suit of the king of any capital offence, unless by the unanimous voice of twenty four of his equals and neighbours: that is, by twelve at least of the grand jury, in the first place, assenting to the accusation; and afterwards, by the whole petit jury, of twelve more, finding him guilty upon his trial. But, if twelve of the grand jury assent, it is a good presentment, though some of the rest disagree. And the indictment, when so found, is publicly delivered into court.

Indictments must have a precise and sufficient certainty. By statute 1 Hen. V. c. 5. all indictments must set forth the christian name, sirname, and addition of the state and degree, mystery, town, or place, and the county of the offender: and all this to identify his person. The time, and place, are also to be ascertained, by naming the day, and township, in which the fact was committed: though a mistake in these points is in general not held to be material, provided the time be laid previous to the finding of the indictment, and the place to be within the jurisdiction of the court. But sometimes the time may be very material, where there is any limitation in point of time assigned for the prosecution of offenders; as by the statute 7 Will. III. c. 3. which enacts, that no prosecution shall be had for any of the treasons or misprisions therein mentioned (except an assassination designed or attempted on the person of the king) unless the bill of indictment be found within three years after the offence committed: and, in case of murder, the time of the death must be laid within a year and a day after the mortal stroke was given. The offence itself must also be set forth with clearness and certainty: and in some crimes particular words of art must be used, which are so appropriated by the law to express the precise idea which it entertains of the offence, that no other words, however synonymous they may seem, are capable of doing it. Thus, in treason, the facts must be laid to be done, "treasonably, and against his allegiance;" antiently "proditorie et contra ligeantiae suae debitum:" else the indictment is void. In indictments for murder, it is necessary to say that the party indicted "murdered," not "killed" or "slew," the other; which till the late statute was expressed in Latin by the word "murdravit." In all indictments for felonies, the adverb "feloniously, felonice," must be used; and for burglaries also, "burglariter," or in English, "burglariously:" and all these to ascertain the intent. In rapes, the word "rapuit," or "ravished," is necessary, and must not be expressed by any periphrasis; in order to render the crime certain. So in larcinies also, the words "felonice cepit et asportavit, feloniously took and carried away," are necessary to every indictment; for these only can express the very offence. Also in indictments for murder, the length and depth of the wound should in general be expressed, in order that it may appear to the court to have been of a mortal nature: but if it goes through the body, then it's dimensions are immaterial, for that is apparently sufficient to have been the cause of the death. Also where a limb, or the like, is absolutely cut off, there such description is impossible. Lastly, in indictments the value of the thing, which is the subject or instrument of the offence, must sometimes be expressed. In indictments for larcinies this is necessary, that it may appear whether it be grand or petit larciny; and whether entitled or not to the benefit of clergy: in homicide of all sorts it is necessary; as the weapon, with which it is committed, is forfeited to the king as a deodand.

The remaining methods of prosecution are without any previous finding by a jury, to fix the authoritative stamp of verisimilitude upon the accusation. One of these, by the common law, was when a thief was taken with the mainour, that is, with the thing stolen upon him, in manu. For he might, when so detected flagrante delicto, be brought into court, arraigned, and tried, without indictment: as by the Danish law he might be taken and hanged upon the spot, without accusation or trial. But this proceeding was taken away by several statutes in the reign of Edward the third: though in Scotland a similar process remains to this day. So that the only species of proceeding at the suit of the king, without a previous indictment or presentment by a grand jury, now seems to be that of information.

III. Informations are of two sorts; first, those which are partly at the suit of the king, and partly at that of a subject; and secondly, such as are only in the name of the king. The former are usually brought upon penal statutes, which inflict a penalty upon conviction of the offender, one part to the use of the king, and another to the use of the informer; and are a sort of qui tam actions, (the nature of which was explained in a former volume) only carried on by a criminal instead of a civil process: upon which I shall therefore only observe, that by the statute 31 Eliz. c. 5. no prosecution upon any penal statute, the suit and benefit whereof are limited in part to the king and in part to the prosecutor, can be brought by any common informer after one year is expired since the commission of the offence; nor on behalf of the crown after the lapse of two years longer; nor, where the forfeiture is originally given only to the king, can such prosecution be had after the expiration of two years from the commission of the offence.

The informations, that are exhibited in the name of the king alone, are also of two kinds: first, those which are truly and properly his own suits, and filed ex officio by his own immediate officer, the attorney general: secondly, those in which, though the king is the nominal prosecutor, yet it is at the relation of some private person or common informer; and they are filed by the king's coroner and attorney in the court of king's bench, usually called the master of the crown-office, who is for this purpose the standing officer of the public. The objects of the king's own prosecutions, filed ex officio by his own attorney general, are properly such enormous misdemesnors, as peculiarly tend to disturb or endanger his government, or to molest or affront him in the regular discharge of his royal functions. For offences so high and dangerous, in the punishment or prevention of which a moment's delay would be fatal, the law has given to the crown the power of an immediate prosecution, without waiting for any previous application to any other tribunal. A power, so necessary, not only to the ease and safety but even to the very existence of the executive magistrate, was originally reserved in the great plan of the English constitution, which has wisely provided for the due preservation of all it's parts. The objects of the other species of informations, filed by the master of the crown-office upon the complaint or relation of a private subject, are any gross and notorious misdemesnors, riots, batteries, libels, and other immoralities of an atrocious kind, not peculiarly tending to disturb the government (for those are left to the care of the attorney general) but which, on account of their magnitude or pernicious example, deserve the most public animadversion. And when an information is filed, either thus, or by the attorney general ex officio, it must be tried by a petit jury of the county where the offence arises: after which, if the defendant be found guilty, he must resort to the court for his punishment.

There can be no doubt but that this mode of prosecution, by information (or suggestion) filed on record by the king's attorney general, or by his coroner or master of the crown-office in the court of king's bench, is as antient as the common law itself. For as the king was bound to prosecute, or at least to lend the sanction of his name to a prosecutor, whenever a grand jury informed him upon their oaths that there was a sufficient ground for instituting a criminal suit; so, when these his immediate officers were otherwise sufficiently assured that a man had committed a gross misdemesnor, either personally against the king or his government, or against the public peace and good order, they were at liberty, without waiting for any farther intelligence, to convey that information to the court of king's bench by a suggestion on record, and to carry on the prosecution in his majesty's name. But these informations (of every kind) are confined by the constitutional law to mere misdemesnors only: for, wherever any capital offence is charged, the same law requires that the accusation be warranted by the oath of twelve men, before the party shall be put to answer it. And, as to those offences, in which informations were allowed as well as indictments, so long as they were confined to this high and respectable jurisdiction, and were carried on in a legal and regular course in his majesty's court of king's bench, the subject had no reason to complain. The same notice was given, the same process was issued, the same pleas were allowed, the same trial by jury was had, the same judgment was given by the same judges, as if the prosecution had originally been by indictment. But when the statute 3 Hen. VII. c. 1. had extended the jurisdiction of the court of star-chamber, the members of which were the sole judges of the law, the fact, and the penalty; and when the statute 11 Hen. VII. c. 3. had permitted informations to be brought by any informer upon any penal statute, not extending to life or member, at the assises or before the justices of the peace, who were to hear and determine the same according to their own discretion; then it was, that the legal and orderly jurisdiction of the court of king's bench fell into disuse and oblivion, and Empson and Dudley (the wicked instruments of king Henry VII) by hunting out obsolete penalties, and this tyrannical mode of prosecution, with other oppressive devices, continually harassed the subject and shamefully inriched the crown. The latter of these acts was soon indeed repealed by statute 1 Hen. VIII. c. 6. but the court of star-chamber continued in high vigour, and daily increasing it's authority, for more than a century longer; till finally abolished by statute 16 Car. I. c. 10.

Upon this dissolution the old common law authority of the court of king's bench, as the custos morum of the nation, being found necessary to reside somewhere for the peace and good government of the kingdom, was again revived in practice. And it is observable, that, in the same act of parliament which abolished the court of star-chamber, a conviction by information is expressly reckoned up, as one of the legal modes of conviction of such persons, as should offend a third time against the provisions of that statute. It is true, sir Matthew Hale, who presided in this court soon after the time of such revival, is said to have been no friend to this method of prosecution: and, if so, the reason of such his dislike was probably the ill use, which the master of the crown-office then made of his authority, by permitting the subject to be harrassed with vexatious informations, whenever applied to by any malicious or revengeful prosecutor; rather than his doubt of their legality, or propriety upon urgent occasions. For the power of filing informations, without any control, then resided in the breast of the master: and, being filed in the name of the king, they subjected the prosecutor to no costs, though on trial they proved to be groundless. This oppressive use of them, in the times preceding the revolution, occasioned a struggle, soon after the accession of king William, to procure a declaration of their illegality by the judgment of the court of king's bench. But sir John Holt, who then presided there, and all the judges, were clearly of opinion, that this proceeding was grounded on the common law, and could not be then impeached. And, in a few years afterwards, a more temperate remedy was applied in parliament, by statute 4 & 5 W. & M. c. 18. which enacts, that the clerk of the crown shall not file any information without express direction from the court of king's bench: and that every prosecutor, permitted to promote such information, shall give security by a recognizance of twenty pounds (which now seems to be too small a sum) to prosecute the same with effect; and to pay costs to the defendant, in case he be acquitted thereon, unless the judge, who tries the information, shall certify there was reasonable cause for filing it; and, at all events, to pay costs, unless the information shall be tried within a year after issue joined. But there is a proviso in this act, that it shall not extend to any other informations, than those which are exhibited by the master of the crown-office: and, consequently, informations at the king's own suit, filed by his attorney general, are no way restrained thereby.

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To arraign, is nothing else but to call the prisoner to the bar of the court, to answer the matter charged upon him in the indictment. The prisoner is to be called to the bar by his name; and it is laid down in our antient books, that, though under an indictment of the highest nature, he must be brought to the bar without irons, or any manner of shackles or bonds; unless there be evident danger of an escape, and then he may be secured with irons. But yet in Layer's case, A. D. 1722. a difference was taken between the time of arraignment, and the time of trial; and accordingly the prisoner stood at the bar in chains during the time of his arraignment.

When he is brought to the bar, he is called upon by name to hold up his hand: which, though it may seem a trifling circumstance, yet is of this importance, that by the holding up of his hand constat de persona, and he owns himself to be of that name by which he is called. However it is not an indispensable ceremony; for, being calculated merely for the purpose of identifying the person, any other acknowledgement will answer the purpose as well: therefore, if the prisoner obstinately and contemptuously refuses to hold up his hand, but confesses he is the person named, it is fully sufficient.

Then the indictment is to be read to him distinctly in the English tongue (which was law, even while all other proceedings were in Latin) that he may fully understand his charge. After which it is to be demanded of him, whether he be guilty of the crime, whereof he stands indicted, or not guilty. By the old common law the accessory could not be arraigned till the principal was attainted; and therefore, if the principal had never been indicted at all, had stood mute, had challenged above thirty five jurors peremptorily, had claimed the benefit of clergy, had obtained a pardon, or had died before attainder, the accessory in any of these cases could not be arraigned: for non constitit whether any felony was committed or no, till the principal was attainted; and it might so happen that the accessory should be convicted one day, and the principal acquitted the next, which would be absurd. However, this absurdity could only happen, where it was possible, that a trial of the principal might be had, subsequent to that of the accessory: and therefore the law still continues, that the accessory shall not be tried, so long as the principal remains liable to be tried hereafter. But by statute I Ann. c. 9. if the principal be once convicted, and before attainder, (that is, before he receives judgment of death or outlawry) he is delivered by pardon, the benefit of clergy, or otherwise; or if the principal stands mute, or challenges peremptorily above the legal number of jurors, so as never to be convicted at all; in any of these cases, in which no subsequent trial can be had of the principal, the accessory may be proceeded against, as if the principal felon had been attainted; for there is no danger of future contradiction. And upon the trial of the accessory, as well after as before the conviction of the principal, it seems to be the better opinion, and founded on the true spirit of justice, that the accessory is at liberty (if he can) to controvert the guilt of his supposed principal, and to prove him innocent of the charge, as well in point of fact as in point of law.

When a criminal is arraigned, he either stands mute, or confesses the fact; which circumstances we may call incidents to the arraignment: or else he pleads to the indictment, which is to be considered as the next stage of proceedings.

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V. The trial by jury, or the country, per patriam, is also that trial by the peers of every Englishman, which, as the grand bulwark of his liberties, is secured to him by the great charter, "nullus liber homo capiatur, vel imprisonetur, aut exulet, aut aliquo alio modo destruatur, nisi per legale judicium parium suorum, vel per legem terrae."

The antiquity and excellence of this trial, for the settling of civil property, has before been explained at large. And it will hold much stronger in criminal cases; since, in times of difficulty and danger, more is to be apprehended from the violence and partiality of judges appointed by the crown, in suits between the king and the subject, than in disputes between one individual and another, to settle the metes and boundaries of private property. Our law has therefore wisely placed this strong and twofold barrier, of a presentment and a trial by jury, between the liberties of the people, and the prerogative of the crown. It was necessary, for preserving the admirable ballance of our constitution, to vest the executive power of the laws in the prince: and yet this power might be dangerous and destructive to that very constitution, if exerted without check or control, by justices of oyer and terminer occasionally named by the crown; who might then, as in France or Turkey, imprison, dispatch, or exile any man that was obnoxious to the government, by an instant declaration, that such is their will and pleasure. But the founders of the English laws have with excellent forecast contrived, that no man should be called to answer to the king for any capital crime, unless upon the preparatory accusation of twelve or more of his fellow subjects, the grand jury: and that the truth of every accusation, whether preferred in the shape of indictment, information, or appeal, should afterwards be confirmed by the unanimous suffrage of twelve of his equals and neighbours, indifferently chosen, and superior to all suspicion. So that the liberties of England cannot but subsist, so long as this palladium remains sacred and inviolate, not only from all open attacks, (which none will be so hardy as to make) but also from all secret machinations, which may sap and undermine it; by introducing new and arbitrary methods of trial, by justices of the peace, commissioners of the revenue, and courts of conscience. And however convenient these may appear at first, (as doubtless all arbitrary powers, well executed, are the most convenient) yet let it be again remembered, that delays, and little inconveniences in the forms of justice, are the price that all free nations must pay for their liberty in more substantial matters; that these inroads upon this sacred bulwark of the nation are fundamentally opposite to the spirit of our constitution; and that, though begun in trifles, the precedent may gradually increase and spread, to the utter disuse of juries in questions of the most momentous concern.

What was said of juries in general, and the trial thereby, in civil cases, will greatly shorten our present remarks, with regard to the trial of criminal suits; indictments, informations, and appeals: which trial I shall consider in the same method that I did the former; by following the order and course of the proceedings themselves, as the most clear and perspicuous way of treating it.

When therefore a prisoner on his arraignment has pleaded not guilty, and for his trial hath put himself upon the country, which country the jury are, the sheriff of the county must return a panel of jurors, liberos et legales homines, de vicineto; that is, freeholders, without just exception, and of the visne or neighbourhood; which is interpreted to be of the county where the fact is committed. If the proceedings are before the court of king's bench, there is time allowed, between the arraignment and the trial, for a jury to be impanelled by writ of venire facias to the sheriff, as in civil causes: and the trial in case of a misdemesnor is had at nisi prius, unless it be of such consequence as to merit a trial at bar; which is always invariably had when the prisoner is tried for any capital offence. But, before commissioners of oyer and terminer and gaol delivery, the sheriff by virtue of a general precept directed to him beforehand, returns to the court a panel of forty eight jurors, to try all felons that may be called upon their trial at that session: and therefore it is there usual to try all felons immediately, or soon, after their arraignment. But it is not customary, nor agreeable to the general course of proceedings, unless by consent of parties, to try persons indicted of smaller misdemesnors at the same court in which they have pleaded not guilty, or traversed the indictment. But they usually give security to the court, to appear at the next assises or session, and then and there to try the traverse, giving notice to the prosecutor of the same.

In cases of high treason, whereby corruption of blood may ensue, or misprision of such treason, it is enacted by statute 7 W. III. c. 3. first, that no person shall be tried for any such treason, except an attempt to assassinate the king, unless the indictment be found within three years after the offence committed: next, that the prisoner shall have a copy of the indictment, but not the names of the witnesses, five days at least before the trial; that is, upon the true construction of the act, before his arraignment; for then is his time to take any exceptions thereto, by way of plea or demurrer: thirdly, that he shall also have a copy of the panel of jurors two days before his trial: and, lastly, that he shall have the same compulsive process to bring in his witnesses for him, as was usual to compel their appearance against him. And, by statute 7 Ann. c. 21. (which did not take place till after the decease of the late pretender) all persons, indicted for high treason or misprision thereof, shall have not only a copy of the indictment, but a list of all the witnesses to be produced, and of the jurors impanelled, with their professions and places of abode, delivered to him ten days before the trial, and in the presence of two witnesses; the better to prepare him to make his challenges and defence. But this last act, so far as it affected indictments for the inferior species of high treason, respecting the coin and the royal seals, is repealed by the statute 6 Geo. III. c. 53. else it had been impossible to have tried those offences in the same circuit in which they are indicted: for ten clear days, between the finding and the trial of the indictment, will exceed the time usually allotted for any session of oyer and terminer. And no person indicted for felony is, or (as the law stands) ever can be, entitled to such copies, before the time of his trial.

When the trial is called on, the jurors are to be sworn, as they appear, to the number of twelve, unless they are challenged by the party.

Challenges may here be made, either on the part of the king, or on that of the prisoner; and either to the whole array, or to the separate polls, for the very same reasons that they may be made in civil causes. For it is here at least as necessary, as there, that the sheriff or returning officer be totally indifferent; that where an alien is indicted, the jury should be de medietate, or half foreigners; (which does not indeed hold in treasons, aliens being very improper judges of the breach of allegiance to the king) that on every panel there should be a competent number of hundredors; and that the particular jurors should be omni exceptione majores; not liable to objection either propter honoris respectum, propter defectum, propter affectum, or propter delictum.

Challenges upon any of the foregoing accounts are stiled challenges for cause; which may be without stint in both criminal and civil trials. But in criminal cases, or at least in capital ones, there is, in favorem vitae, allowed to the prisoner an arbitrary and capricious species of challenge to a certain number of jurors, without shewing any cause at all; which is called a peremptory challenge: a provision full of that tenderness and humanity to prisoners, for which our English laws are justly famous. This is grounded on two reasons. 1. As every one must be sensible, what sudden impressions and unaccountable prejudices we are apt to conceive upon the bare looks and gestures of another; and how necessary it is, that a prisoner (when put to defend his life) should have a good opinion of his jury, the want of which might totally disconcert him; the law wills not that he should be tried by any one man against whom he has conceived a prejudice, even without being able to assign a reason for such his dislike. 2. Because, upon challenges for cause shewn, if the reason assigned prove insufficient to set aside the juror, perhaps the bare questioning his indifference may sometimes provoke a resentment; to prevent all ill consequences from which, the prisoner is still at liberty, if he pleases, peremptorily to set him aside.

This privilege, of peremptory challenges, though granted to the prisoner, is denied to the king by the statute 33 Edw. I. st. 4. which enacts, that the king shall challenge no jurors without assigning a cause certain, to be tried and approved by the court. However it is held, that the king need not assign his cause of challenge, till all the panel is gone through, and unless there cannot be a full jury without the persons so challenged. And then, and not sooner, the king's counsel must shew the cause: otherwise the juror shall be sworn.

The peremptory challenges of the prisoner must however have some reasonable boundary; otherwise he might never be tried. This reasonable boundary is settled by the common law to be the number of thirty five; that is, one under the number of three full juries. For the law judges that five and thirty are fully sufficient to allow the most timorous man to challenge through mere caprice; and that he who peremptorily challenges a greater number, or three full juries, has no intention to be tried at all. And therefore it dealt with one, who peremptorily challenges above thirty five, and will not retract his challenge, as with one who stands mute and refuses his trial; by sentencing him to the peine forte et dure in felony, and by attainting him in treason. And so the law stands at this day with regard to treason, of any kind.

But by statute 22 Hen. VIII. c. 14. (which, with regard to felonies, stands unrepealed by statute 1 & 2 Ph. & Mar. c. 10.) by this statute, I say, no person, arraigned for felony, can be admitted to make any more than twenty peremptory challenges. But how if the prisoner will peremptorily challenge twenty one? what shall be done? The old opinion was, that judgment of peine forte et dure should be given, as where he challenged thirty six at the common law: but the better opinion seems to be, that such challenge shall only be disregarded and overruled. Because, first, the common law doth not inflict the judgment of penance for challenging twenty one, neither doth the statute inflict it; and so heavy a judgment shall not be imposed by implication. Secondly, the words of the statute are, "that he be not admitted to challenge more than twenty;" the evident construction of which is, that any farther challenge shall be disallowed or prevented: and therefore, being null from the beginning, and never in fact a challenge, it can subject the prisoner to no punishment; but the juror shall be regularly sworn.

If, by reason of challenges or the default of the jurors, a sufficient number cannot be had of the original panel, a tales may be awarded as in civil causes, till the number of twelve is sworn, "well and truly to try, and true deliverance make, between our sovereign lord the king, and the prisoner whom they have in charge; and a true verdict to give, according to their evidence."

When the jury is sworn, if it be a cause of any consequence, the indictment is usually opened, and the evidence marshalled, examined, and enforced by the counsel for the crown, or prosecution. But it is a settled rule at common law, that no counsel shall be allowed a prisoner upon his trial, upon the general issue, in any capital crime, unless some point of law shall arise proper to be debated. A rule, which (however it may be palliated under cover of that noble declaration of the law, when rightly understood, that the judge shall be counsel for the prisoner; that is, shall see that the proceedings against him are legal and strictly regular) seems to be not at all of a piece with the rest of the humane treatment of prisoners by the English law. For upon what face of reason can that assistance be denied to save the life of a man, which yet is allowed him in prosecutions for every petty trespass? Nor indeed is it strictly speaking a part of our antient law: for the Mirrour, having observed the necessity of counsel in civil suits, "who know how to forward and defend the cause, by the rules of law and customs of the realm," immediately afterwards subjoins; "and more necessary are they for defence upon indictments and appeals of felony, than upon other venial causes." And, to say the truth, the judges themselves are so sensible of this defect in our modern practice, that they seldom scruple to allow a prisoner counsel to stand by him at the bar, and instruct him what questions to ask, or even to ask questions for him, with respect to matters of fact: for as to matters of law, arising on the trial, they are intitled to the assistance of counsel. But still this is a matter of too much importance to be left to the good pleasure of any judge, and is worthy the interposition of the legislature; which has shewn it's inclination to indulge prisoners with this reasonable assistance, by enacting in statute 7 W. III. c. 3. that persons indicted for such high treason, as works a corruption of the blood, or misprision thereof, may make their full defence by counsel, not exceeding two, to be named by the prisoner and assigned by the court or judge: and this indulgence, by statute 20 Geo. II. c. 30. is extended to parliamentary impeachments for high treason, which were excepted in the former act.

. . . . .

Lastly, it was an antient and commonly received practice, (derived from the civil law, and which also to this day obtains in the kingdom of France) that, as counsel was not allowed to any prisoner accused of a capital crime, so neither should he be suffered to exculpate himself by the testimony of any witnesses. And therefore it deserves to be remembered, to the honour of Mary I, (whose early sentiments, till her marriage with Philip of Spain, seem to have been humane and generous) that when she appointed sir Richard Morgan chief justice of the commonpleas, she injoined him, "that notwithstanding the old error, which did not admit any witness to speak, or any other matter to be heard, in favour of the adversary, her majesty being party; her highness' pleasure was, that whatsoever could be brought in favour of the subject should be admitted to be heard: and moreover, that the justices should not persuade themselves to sit in judgment otherwise for her highness than for her subject." Afterwards, in one particular instance (when embezzling the queen's military stores was made felony by statute 31 Eliz. c. 4.) it was provided that any person, impeached for such felony, "should be received and admitted to make any lawful proof that he could, by lawful witness or otherwise, for his discharge and defence:" and in general the courts grew so heartily ashamed of a doctrine so unreasonable and oppressive, that a practice was gradually introduced of examining witnesses for the prisoner, but not upon oath: the consequence of which still was, that the jury gave less credit to the prisoner's evidence, than to that produced by the crown. Sir Edward Coke protests very strongly against this tyrannical practice: declaring that he never read in any act of parliament, book-case, or record, that in criminal cases the party accused should not have witnesses sworn for him; and therefore there was not so much as scintilla juris against it. And the house of commons were so sensible of this absurdity, that, in the bill for abolishing hostilities between England and Scotland, when felonies committed by Englishmen in Scotland were ordered to be tried in one of the three northern counties, they insisted on a clause, and carried it against the efforts of both the crown and the house of lords, against the practice of the courts in England, and the express law of Scotland, "that in all such trials, for the better discovery of the truth, and the better information of the consciences of the jury and justices, there shall be allowed to the party arraigned the benefit of such credible witnesses, to be examined upon oath, as can be produced for his clearing and justification." At length by the statute 7 W. III. c. 3. the same measure of justice was established throughout all the realm, in cases of treason within the act: and it was afterwards declared by statute 1 Ann. st. 2. c. 9. that in all cases of treason and felony, all witnesses for the prisoner should be examined upon oath, in like manner as the witnesses against him.

When the evidence on both sides is closed, the jury cannot be discharged till they have given in their verdict; but are to consider of it, and deliver it in, with the same forms, as upon civil causes: only they cannot, in a criminal case, give a privy verdict. But an open verdict may be either general, guilty, or not guilty; or special, setting forth all the circumstances of the case, and praying the judgment of the court, whether, for instance, on the facts stated, it be murder, manslaughter, or no crime at all. This is where they doubt the matter of law, and therefore chuse to leave it to the determination of the court; though they have an unquestionable right of determining upon all the circumstances, and finding a general verdict, if they think proper so to hazard a breach of their oaths: and, if their verdict be notoriously wrong, they may be punished and the verdict set aside by attaint at the suit of the king; but not at the suit of the prisoner. But the practice, heretofore in use, of fining, inprisoning, or otherwise punishing jurors, merely at the discretion of the court, for finding their verdict contrary to the direction of the judge, was arbitrary, unconstitutional and illegal: and is treated as such by sir Thomas Smith, two hundred years ago; who accounted "such doings to be very violent, tyrannical, and contrary to the liberty and custom of the realm of England." For, as sir Matthew Hale well observes, it would be a most unhappy case for the judge himself, if the prisoner's fate depended upon his directions:--unhappy also for the prisoner; for, if the judge's opinion must rule the verdict, the trial by jury would be useless. Yet in many instances, where contrary to evidence the jury have found the prisoner guilty, their verdict hath been mercifully set aside, and a new trial granted by the court of king's bench; for in such case, as hath been said, it cannot be set right by attaint. But there hath yet been no instance of granting a new trial, where the prisoner was acquitted upon the first.

If the jury therefore find the prisoner not guilty, he is then for ever quit and discharged of the accusation; except he be appealed of felony within the time limited by law. But if the jury find him guilty, he is then said to be convicted of the crime whereof he stands indicted. Which conviction may accrue two ways; either by his confessing the offence and pleading guilty; or by his being found so by the verdict of his country.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 5, Amendments V and VI, Document 14
The University of Chicago Press

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England: A Facsimile of the First Edition of 1765--1769. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

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