Stanstead 15 – Pleading The Belly No Longer Works As A Sentencing Dodge

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This is an interesting application of modern feminism to the criminal justice system – the Stanstead 15 case is seeing an attempt to revive the pleading of the belly defence. Not against conviction, but against sentencing. Mothers, you see, are so special that to have them treated just like anyone else would be a grievous miscarriage. Which isn’t really quite what all those women have fought for over the years, is it?

But that is what is being tried on here:

Stansted 15 activist: ‘Jail separation from my baby would be horrific’

Well, yes, it might quite likely be such. However:

One of the 15 activists convicted of a terrorism offence for blocking the takeoff of a deportation charter flight from Stansted has spoken of her anguish before the group’s sentencing this week, saying she fears a “horrific” separation from her newborn son. The Stansted 15, who were convicted at Chelmsford crown court in December of endangering the safety of an aerodrome, hope they will be given non-custodial sentences, though the offence carries a maximum of life imprisonment. Their convictions under the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990, were condemned as a “crushing blow for human rights” by Amnesty International. Their lawyers have lodged an appeal.

I’m sure we all hope for non-custodial sentences when found guilty of whatever.

And do note that this is nothing to do with whether they are rightly guilty or not. This is about the plea over sentencing, nowt else. For:

The group’s conviction followed a peaceful action that stopped a chartered deportation flight from taking off on 28 March 2017. Members of the group cut a hole in the airport’s perimeter fence before rushing on to the apron at Stansted.

Baby’s currently 5 weeks old. Crime was in March 2017. We are talking about humans here, not elephants nor whales, so the pregnancy started after the crime – after the arrest in fact. Which is interesting.

For we used to have a good defence against certain sentences. A woman could indeed plead the belly. Back in the days when conviction of any of 200 and more crimes could lead to a long hanging – they’d not got the concept of a long drop hanging back then, it was a long choking rather than a long drop and broken neck – a pregnant woman could point out that she was pregnant. The idea being that it wasn’t the baby’s fault – how different in so many ways from modern feminism – therefore the baby shouldn’t be executed. So therefore nor could the mother until their partition by parturition in the due course of time.

Sentences were often commuted at this point. But there was a sting in the tail of this:

Pleading the belly was a process available at English common law, which permitted a woman in the later stages of pregnancy to receive a reprieve of her death sentence until after she bore her child. The plea was available at least as early as 1387 and was eventually rendered obsolete by the Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act 1931, which stated that an expecting mother would automatically have her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment with hard labour.

The plea did not constitute a defense, and could only be made after a verdict of guilty was delivered. Upon making the plea, the convict was entitled to be examined by a jury of matrons, generally selected from the observers present at the trial. If she was found to be pregnant with a quick child (that is, a fetus sufficiently developed to render its movement detectable) the convict was granted a reprieve of sentence until the next hanging time after her delivery.

Scholarly reviews of the Old Bailey Sessions Papers and Assize records from the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I have shown that women granted such reprieves were often subsequently granted pardons or had their sentences commuted to transportation. Even those women who were subsequently executed pursuant to their original sentences were often executed behind schedule. The famous female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read both used this plea to delay execution, although Read died of fever in prison.

It appears that women were often fraudulently or erroneously found to be quick with child. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders includes a character who successfully pleaded her belly despite being “no more with child than the judge that tried [her]”. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera includes a scene where the character Filch picks up income working as a “child getter … helping the ladies to a pregnancy against their being called down to sentence”. As a check against this abuse of the system, the law held that no women could be granted a second reprieve from the original sentence on the ground of subsequent pregnancy, even if the fetus had quickened. In the event that a female prisoner became pregnant, her gaoler or the local sheriff was subject to a fine.

All of which is most interesting, don’t you think?

Obviously enough this pleading of the belly by one of the Stanstead 15 should not affect the sentencing of them all. It’s only an argument that this specific criminal be differently treated. Which is OK, I guess, but what’s going to be really interesting is who do we fine over the cause of that specific difference in sentence? For the baby was begotten after the offence, after the arrest. Should we be chasing Finch or the magistrate who allowed bail in order to fine them?

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