Let Us Now Praise Infamous Animals

In the spring of 1457, a gruesome murder took place in the French village of Savigny-sur-Etang. A five-year-old boy had been killed and his body partially consumed. A local family was accused of this frightful crime by local residents who claimed to have witnessed the murder. The seven suspects, a mother and her six children, were soon tracked down by local authorities, who discovered them still stained by the boy’s blood. They were arrested, indicted on charges of infanticide and held in the local jail for trial.

The defendants were indigent and the court appointed a lawyer to represent them. A few weeks later a trial was convened in Savigny’s seigneurial court. Before a crowded room, witnesses were called. Evidence was presented and legal arguments hotly debated. The justices considered the facts and the law and rendered a verdict and a sentence. The mother was pronounced guilty and ordered to be hanged to death by her legs from the limb of the gallows tree. Her six children, however, received a judicial pardon. The court accepted the defense lawyer’s argument that the youngsters lacked the mental competence to have committed a crime in the eyes of the law. The orphaned children were sent into custodial care at the expense of the state.

This is an interesting case to be sure, featuring important lessons about the legal rights of the poor and the historic roots of juvenile justice in western jurisprudence, lessons that seem entirely lost on our current…

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