Are suicides insane? (Before Mr. Justice Mole)
A sequel to a death pact, the trial at the Old Bailey of Oliver Jackson, 22, was continued to-day, when Sir Ethelred Rutt K.C. made an impassioned plea for acquittal to the jury. Jackson and a young woman, Emily Jones, 20, took poison together, as a result of which Jones died; but Jackson, after a long illness, survived. This young man (said Sir Ethelred) stands before you charged with murder and attempted suicide. He looks a normal and healthy young man; he gave his evidence clearly and well; he appears to be responsible for his actions. He has admitted that he helped to administer to the dead woman the poison by which she died, and afterwards took some himself. Yet I ask you to acquit him on both charges on the ground that he is, or was, of unsound mind and not responsible for his actions.
The Judge: This is not a very promising line of defence, Sir Ethelred.
Sir Ethelred: You wait, milord. Members of the jury, at the inquest on Emily Jones, the coroner’s jury brought in a verdict that she took her own life while of unsound mind. At that date the prisoner was grievously ill in a prison hospital and was not expected to live. If he had died at the same time as Jones there is no doubt that the same coroner’s court would have found that he had committed suicide while of unsound mind.
The Judge: Why?
Sir Ethelred: Milord, I shall come to that presently. But, gentlemen, he was carefully nursed back to life at the State’s expense and by the servants of the State, and he is now charged by the State with a crime the penalty of which is death. Now, the State cannot have it both ways.
The Judge: It generally does.
Sir Ethelred: I cannot compete with your Lordship in worldly wisdom. It is the genial habit of the State, for one reason or another, to assume that a citizen who takes his own life was out of his mind when he did so. This is partly due to the antiquated provisions concerning the burial of suicides, and in part is a form of conceit in the State, which likes to think that it so well disposes the lives of the citizens that any one who wishes to leave it must be mad. But, whatever the reason, it is beyond all reason to say that he who does a thing successfully is of unsound mind, but that he who fails to do the same thing is of sound mind. For this———
The Judge: Steady, Sir Ethelred! What was that?
Sir Ethelred: Milord, the sounder the mind the more likely it is to direct the actions of the body with efficiency. Therefore, if a successful suicide be in variably mad, a would-be suicide who fails must be raving
The Judge: Does the jury follow that?
The Foreman: We are not quite clear.
Sir Ethelred: That will come. Now, what was the particular evidence at this inquiry which led the jury to the conclusion that this unfortunate young woman, Emily Jones, was of unsound mind? It was evidence applicable not to the woman only but to the prisoner Jackson as well, and applicable in precisely equal proportions. For it was, as you have heard, a letter found near the scene of the tragedy and signed by both parties. An extraordinary letter: criticizing the Government; questioning the capacity of statesmen and bankers; decrying the Gold Standard, Herr Hitler, ex-President Hoover, the Trade Unions, the Means Test, the Licensing Laws, the very House of Lords; suggesting changes in the laws and customs of the country which could only proceed from a disordered mind; attributing the joint misfortunes of the writers to persons and institutions which any British jury is bound to respect; and condemning with especial vigour the mother of Jones and the father of the prisoner. Now, the coroner, Dr. Busy, following the admirable custom of our excellent coroners (At this point cheers broke out in the public galleries and the judge ordered a man to be removed. This was done.)
Sir Ethelred (continuing}: The coroner, I say, was not content to establish the cause of death, but conducted a minute inquiry into the habits, social life, and moral outlook of all the relations of the deceased woman and as many of her friends as could be identified and brought to the court; also he made a long speech about greyhound-racing. The inquest lasted three days, but was much enjoyed by nearly every one. In particular, the coroner made some strong and severe comments upon the way of life of the dead woman’s mother and the prisoner’s father, the former of whom, it appears, keeps bees in her bedroom, while the latter bets on greyhounds and listens to secular music in the Budwell Recreation Ground on Sunday afternoons. The coroner founded these adverse comments, as you have heard, upon certain observations in the letter I have mentioned; though this did not prevent him from directing the jury that that letter was written by one person of unsound mind and another who, though still alive, had probably been in the same condition at the time of writing
The Judge: Are you not wandering a trifle, Sir Ethelred?
Sir Ethelred: It may be so, milord. No, not exactly. The point is, milord: May it please your Lordship, gentlemen of the jury, the coroner’s investigations disclosed that the misfortunes of the prisoner Jackson were even more acute than those of the dead woman, Jones. Both were passionately, as the phrase is, ‘in love’, and, owing to their economic circumstances, were unable to marry; but in addition the prisoner has been unemployed almost continuously since the age of sixteen; and his father, as I have already mentioned, is a man of Bohemian tendencies and has been a source of disquiet to his son. That is what I meant, milord, when I said that the coroner’s court would certainly have found that the prisoner was of unsound mind if he had died, which he has not. A fortiori, milord, if the dead woman, Jones ………….
The Judge: I see what you mean, Sir Ethelred.
Sir Ethelred: I should like, if I may, milord, to dwell for a moment upon your Lordship’s sagacity, insight, and knowledge of the world.
The Judge: Proceed, Sir Ethelred. It is not necessary.
Sir Ethelred: To proceed, milord?
The Judge: To dwell.
Sir Ethelred: Your Lordship is as modest as he is handsome. Milord
The Judge: Does the jury see what you mean?
The Foreman of the Jury: Counsel means, milord, that the prisoner must be more mad than what the deceased was on account of more troubles and that.
Sir Ethelred: Exactly. Gentlemen, to all intents and purposes you may consider that Jones and Jackson are one person, for they were united in misfortune, love, and political opinions, in mind, body, and soul. A British jury has found that one half of this person was of unsound mind when it took poison. You, another British jury, are asked by the Crown to say that the other half of the same person was of perfectly sound mind when doing the same action at the same moment, though this half had even greater cause for desperation and loss of control. In other words, one British jury is being asked to go in flat contradiction of another. But this is impossible. For every British jury is the same—that is, it is the highest—with great respect to his Lordship—it is the highest and only infallible repository of wisdom and justice. Every British jury is always right1; it follows then that upon the same subject two British juries cannot come to a different decision; for that would mean that one of them was wrong—which is out of the question. Therefore the decision already arrived at is correct: the prisoner was of unsound mind at the time of the tragedy; and you will acquit him.
The Judge (summing up to the jury): I confess to a condition of faint cerebral nebulosity; but on the whole I do believe Sir Ethelred is right.
The jury without leaving the box, acquitted the accused on both charges.
The Judge: But, Sir Ethelred, if he is of unsound mind, he ought to be sent to a place.
Sir Ethelred: No, milord. With great respect, milord, he has become sane again – the shock.
The Judge: Oh, I see. Very well, he may go.
1 But see the same counsel’s remarks upon juries in British Phosphates and Beef-Extract, Ltd. v. The United Alkali and Guano Simplex Association.
A. P. Herbert