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.
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