Bushell's Case 6 State Trials 999 (1670)

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BUSHELL'S CASE 6 State Trials 999 (1670)

A unanimous decision of the Court of Common Pleas, Bushell's Case stands for the proposition that a jury may not be punished for returning a verdict contrary to a court's direction. In medieval England, bribery and intimidation were commonly accepted methods of insuring "correct" verdicts, but the Privy Council and the Star Chamber had eliminated those practices by the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, the Star Chamber often handled as corrupt any acquittal that it felt contradicted the evidence. The popular view increasingly opposed punishment for jurors unless they returned a clearly corrupt verdict, and the House of Commons endorsed that position in 1667. The decision in Bushell's Case brought the law into line.

When jurors in a case against William Penn and other Quakers persisted in finding the defendants innocent—despite three days of starvation—Bushell and the other jurors were fined and imprisoned. Bushell obtained a writ of habeas corpus in the Court of Common Pleas and was subsequently discharged. Chief Justice John Vaughan delivered a powerful opinion distinguishing between the "ministerial" (administrative) and judicial functions of jurors. Violations of the former were finable but a verdict was judicial and therefore not subject to penalty. The Court only judged the law. The jury was obliged to deduce the facts from the evidence, and the court could not penalize them for disagreeing with its deductions and directions. Seventeenth-century jurors were expected and required to utilize their own knowledge of a case, private knowledge a judge likely did not have. Only by handpicking jurors could the Crown insure favorable verdicts.

David Gordon