Saturday, December 24, 2005

R. v. Brasier -- a classic case from 1779

I have been commenting on very recent cases, but here is R v. Brasier, 1 Leach 199, 168 E.R. 202, a case from 1779 that has been much cited over the years. It bears on the treatment not only of fresh accusations but also of statements made by children and of accusations made to private care-givers. The report is as it stands in the English Reports, later annotations and all.


(An infant witness under seven years of age, if apprized of the nature of an oath, must be sworn; for no testimony is legal except it be giyen upon oath.)
[S.C. 1 East, P.C. 443; Bull. N. P. 293, Edit. 1790. Referred to, R. v. Guttridge, 1840, 9 C. & P. 471; R. v. Paul, 1890, 25 Q.B.D 202; R. v. Lillyman, [1896] 2 Q.B. 167.]
This was a case reserved for the opinion of the Twelve Judges, by Mr. Justice Buller, at the Spring Assizes for Reading, in the year 1779, on the trial of an indictment [1-Leach-200] for an assault with intent to commit a rape on the body of Mary Harris, an infant under seven years of age.
The case against the prisoner was proved by the mother of the child, and by another woman who lodged with her, to whom the child, immediately on her coming home, told all the circumstances of the injury which had been done to her: and there was no fact or circumstance to confirm the information which the child had given, except that the prisoner lodged at the very place which she had described, and that she had received some hurt, and that she, on seeing him the next day, had declared that he was the man; but she was not sworn or produced as a witness on the trial.
The prisoner was convicted; but the judgment was respited, on a doubt, created by a marginal note to a case in Dyer's Reports (Dyer, 303, b, in marg; 1 Hale, 302, 634; 2 Hale, 279; 11 Mod. 228; 1 Atkins, 29; Foster, 70; 2 Hawk. 612; Gilb. L. E. 144); for these notes having been made by Lord Chief-Justice Treby, are considered of great weight and authority; and it was submitted to the Twelve Judges, Whether this evidence was sufficient in point of law?
The Judges assembled at Serjeants'-Inn Hall 29 April 1779, were unanimously of opinion, That no testimony whatever can be legally received except upon oath; and that an infant, though under the age of seven years, may be sworn in a criminal prosecution, provided such infant appears, on strict examination by the Court, to possess a sufficient knowledge of the nature and consequences of an oath (see White's case, post, 430, Old Bailey October Session, 1786), for there is no precise or fixed rule as to the time within which infants are excluded from giving evidence; but their admissibility depends upon the sense and reason they entertain of the danger and impiety of falsehood, which is to be collected from their answers to questions propounded to them by the Court; but if they are found incompetent to take an oath their testimony cannot be received. The Judges determined, therefore, that the evidence of the information which the infant had, given to her mother and the other witness, ought not to have been received. The prisoner received a pardon (see the case of Rex v Travers, 2 Strange, 700).


Anonymous said...

This case certainly provides a good counterpoint to Thompson v. Trevanion. I don't know what your adversaries will say, but it looks as though you and Jeff Fisher have proven incontrovertibly that "excited utterances" of the sort at issue in Davis and Hammon simply weren't recognized anywhere near the time the Sixth Amendment was enacted, either by British or American common law.

Andrew Fine

TASA said...

thanks for the classic case post!