Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday 1 April 2023

Pleading the Belly

Back in the days of the death penalty, our forebears recognised that executing a pregnant woman raised a certain moral difficulty. The solution they arrived at was allowing the convicted criminal to ‘plead her belly’; a woman sentenced to death but proving upon examination to be carrying a child could have that sentence deferred until after she had given birth.

In practice, whether through merciful reconsideration or administrative cock-up, records show that these women often escaped execution altogether and ended up committed to prison or transportation instead or even being pardoned, providing a powerful incentive for any woman detained on suspicion of a capital crime to get herself knocked up as soon as possible. (This presented certain practical difficulties in all-female prisons but the problem was not insurmountable; ‘The Beggars’ Opera’, which inspired this blog, features a Newgate servant whose side hustle is (pro)creating the means for female criminals to escape the hangman’s noose).

There was an interesting throwback to pleading the belly this week thanks to lawyers for one of two women - or ‘thug mothers’ as the Mail memorably put it - who pleaded guilty this week to affray. It’s certainly not a pretty picture:

...they turned up at their victim's home at 6.30am and pelted her with eggs. Wright, 29, stamped on the victim's legs, while Jones, 33, kneed her in the head and tried to pour vinegar in her eyes.

The guilty plea didn’t leave much for counsel to do but one advocate, at least, did have a go at justifying his fee:

Mr Brody, mitigating for Jones, said his client is heavily pregnant. He added: 'The defence counsel together believes this doesn't reach the custody threshold. Ms Jones is pregnant, she cannot go to prison. 

I’m not an expert, but a quick Google suggests that ‘cannot’ is doing quite a lot of heavy lifting here. In fact, there appears to be no statutory requirement for the judge to take pregnancy into account when sentencing and there are several mother and baby units in UK prisons, making it unclear exactly why Mr Brody would make such an unequivocal (and technically incorrect) statement.

The judge confirmed that the custody threshold had not been met and, in the absence of previous convictions, handed down community and restraining orders, telling them to ‘count themselves lucky’ - something of an understatement, given the premeditation implied by a 6.30am house call furnished with a bottle of vinegar and a box of eggs.

Since the offence took place in 2020 and the women have been aware since the preliminary hearings in 2021 that they would be standing trial in Crown Court, it raises some interesting questions about this suspiciously opportune pregnancy - and, however humane their intentions, about the possible consequences of success for the current campaigns to prevent pregnant women being sent to jail at all.

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