We’ve all been told that the Salem witch trials – in which twenty people were put to death – were the low point in the judicial history of North America. Now a former Maryland prosecutor has reexamined the famous trials to conclude that – while the condemned may not have possessed supernatural powers – an evaluation of the evidence presented in court does indicate that at least some were, indeed, guilty of witchcraft.
In his new book, William Cooke “separates the morality of criminalizing witchcraft from the job of the colonial courts.” Though he believes outlawing witchcraft is an infringement of freedom of religion, it should be the colonial legislative – not judicial – authorities that are the subject of contemporary ire.
In an interview with Parapolitical, Cooke also explains how the witch trials at Salem helped evolve the legal system we have today.
PARAPOLITICAL: One interesting case in the Salem trials involves Giles Corey who was pressed to death for refusing to enter a plea on a charge of being a warlock. The tradition of pressing is interesting because it speaks to the evolution of common law and how the early courts viewed themselves. Can you briefly explain this tradition for our readers?
COOKE: Laws are generally made now by legislative bodies, such as Parliament, Congress, etc. Common law is judge made law. It survives today, but many old common law crimes, such as murder, have been codified by legislatures. In Maryland, where I practice, a few old common law crimes survive. They are false imprisonment, affray, obstructing and hindering, and riot. I am not aware of any more. They can be punished by any sentence that is not cruel and unusual. The courts decide what is cruel and unusual and in the case of false imprisonment have said, so far, that a life sentence isn’t cruel and unusual.
Pressing someone, of course, would be considered cruel and unusual today. But at the time, it was not or they just didn’t care. The basic idea was to punish you for not going along with the process. A felony conviction would allow the government to seize your property, but if you refused to enter a plea or stood mute, you could not be convicted. It is thought that this was a prime motivation for Giles Corey’s actions.
This problem came up again in 1818, in a federal mail robbery case out of Maryland, United States vs. Hare. Crushing the defendant to death was not seen as an option nor was letting him go. The court got around this by simply entering a not guilty plea and proceeding to trial. In 1825, Congress addressed the issue and passed a law that mandated that all other courts in the US do the same. You have to wonder why they didn’t think of that option before.
Read the full interview here.