A thief opts for the lesser of two evils

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The Criminal Justice Act (1855) allowed defendants in court to have their cases heard by a justice of the peace in a summary court, or elect to go before a judge and jury. This act was intended to speed up the prosecution system by enabling more smaller property crimes (larcenies) to be dealt with by the magistracy. Many of those brought before the ‘beak’ may well have thought it beneficial to give up their ‘right’ to a jury in return for escaping the longer sentence that judges could hand down.

In March 1872 there were a couple of cases before the Guildhall Police Court where defendants chose this option. One of them concerned the theft of a silver watch – a fairly serious crime which in previous years might have attracted a sentence  of death (before the 1820s) or transportation.

Charles Cordell gave a false address in court when he was accused of stealing Joseph Cook’s silver watch on Ludgate Hill on Thanksgiving Day*. Cook and his wife were walking on Ludgate Hill at about 4 o’clock when he saw Cordell  next to him and felt him try to take something from his waistcoat pocket. As he looked he claimed he saw the man steal is pocket watch, and immediately  grabbed hold of  him.

‘You have stolen my watch’, he cried, ‘You are mistaken’ replied Cordell, struggling to get free but the prosecutor and his wife held him tight by the hands. Cook called out for help and a policeman soon arrived on the scene. As Cordell protested his innocence the watch fell from his trousers onto the street.

Mr Cook bent down and retrieved his property and the policeman took Cordell prisoner and marched him to the station house. There he was searched and found to have ‘six handkerchiefs, a breast pin and a knife’ on him.

In court he gave an address in Spitalfields, an area synonymous with crime, and admitted having been charged with felony in the past. He pleaded guilty and waived his rights to a jury trial. The magistrate sentenced him to six months imprisonment, with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 05, 1872]

*If this is the traditional feast day  celebrated by the Americans then this means early November, or it may be what we tend to call the Harvest Festival, but perhaps readers may know of another festival more applicable to late February/early March.

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