Contributions to All the Year Round, by Charles Dickens

Five New Points of Criminal Law

The existing Criminal Law has been found in trials for Murder, to be so exceedingly hasty, unfair, and oppressive — in a word, to be so very objectionable to the amiable persons accused of that thoughtless act — that it is, we understand, the intention of the Government to bring in a Bill for its amendment. We have been favoured with an outline of its probable provisions.

It will be grounded on the profound principle that the real offender is the Murdered Person; but for whose obstinate persistency in being murdered, the interesting fellow-creature to be tried could not have got into trouble.

Its leading enactments may be expected to resolve themselves under the following heads:

1. There shall be no judge. Strong representations have been made by highly popular culprits that the presence of this obtrusive character is prejudicial to their best interests. The Court will be composed of a political gentleman, sitting in a secluded room commanding a view of St. James’s Park, who has already more to do than any human creature can, by any stretch of the human imagination, be supposed capable of doing.

2. The jury to consist of Five Thousand Five Hundred and Fifty-five Volunteers.

3. The jury to be strictly prohibited from seeing either the accused or the witnesses. They are not to be sworn. They are on no account to hear the evidence. They are to receive it, or such representations of it, as may happen to fall in their way; and they will constantly write letters about it to all the Papers.

4. Supposing the trial to be a trial for Murder by poisoning, and supposing the hypothetical case, or the evidence, for the prosecution to charge the administration of two poisons, say Arsenic and Antimony; and supposing the taint of Arsenic in the body to be possible but not probable, and the presence of Antimony in the body, to be an absolute certainty; it will then become the duty of the jury to confine their attention solely to the Arsenic, and entirely to dismiss the Antimony from their minds.

5. The symptoms preceding the death of the real offender (or Murdered Person) being described in evidence by medical practitioners who saw them, other medical practitioners who never saw them shall be required to state whether they are inconsistent with certain known diseases — but, THEY SHALL NEVER BE ASKED WHETHER THEY ARE NOT EXACTLY CONSISTENT WITH THE ADMINISTRATION OF POISON. To illustrate this enactment in the proposed Bill by a case:— A raging mad dog is seen to run into the house where Z lives alone, foaming at the mouth. Z and the mad dog are for some time left together in that house under proved circumstances, irresistibly leading to the conclusion that Z has been bitten by the dog. Z is afterwards found lying on his bed in a state of hydrophobia, and with the marks of the dog’s teeth. Now, the symptoms of that disease being identical with those of another disease called Tetanus, which might supervene on Z’s running a rusty nail into a certain part of his foot, medical practitioners who never saw Z, shall bear testimony to that abstract fact, and it shall then be incumbent on the Registrar-General to certify that Z died of a rusty nail.

It is hoped that these alterations in the present mode of procedure will not only be quite satisfactory to the accused person (which is the first great consideration), but will also tend, in a tolerable degree, to the welfare and safety of society. For it is not sought in this moderate and prudent measure to be wholly denied that it is an inconvenience to Society to be poisoned overmuch.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30