Oblique intent

Why the name? Well criminal law afficionados will recognise the phrase 'oblique intent' as referring to a problem of mens rea:can a person who intends to do x (such as setting fire to a building to scare the occupants) also be said to have an intention to kill if one of the occupants dies? This is a problem that has consumed an inordinate amount of time in the appeal courts and in the legal journals, and can be taken to represent a certain kind of approach to legal theory. My approach is intended to be more oblique to this mainstream approach, and thus to raise different kinds of questions and issues. Hence the name.

Friday, 23 March 2012

On William Roughead

One of my favourite writers on criminal law is William Roughead. Roughhead (1870-1952) was a Writer to the Signet in Edinburgh who became a leading commentator on criminal trials, contributing to the elevation of the disreputable genre of ‘true crime’ to new levels of intellectual and social respectability. He was the editor of ten volumes in the Notable British Trials series, which published the transcripts of contemporary and historical criminal trials together with an editorial introduction. This was a major publishing phenomenon during the first half of the twentieth century, leading to a number of spin-off ventures from other publishers trying to cash in on this market. But Roughead's main contribution was in a series of essays (75 in total over 28 years), most of which were initially published in the Juridical Review, on Scottish criminal trials. These were then republished in volumes of collected essays which attracted admirers as diverse as Henry James, John Buchan and FD Roosevelt, though his style is can be clumsy and rather contrived - at least to my mind.

Roughead claimed to have attended most of the significant murder trials in Edinburgh between 1889 and 1949, earning the distinctive privilege of his own seat in the well of the court. He wrote long and fascinating essays on the trials he had himself witnessed, as well as on a number of historical incidents and personalities. He was fascinated with the character of those, such as Madeleine Smith, accused of murder, and liked to speculate about their motives and demeanour. In general terms, though, he was unsympathetic to those accused of crimes, writing cheerfully about executions and murderers getting their comeuppance - leading the playwright James Bridie to describe him as ‘the greatest living exponent of the Calvinist attitude to evil’. And this perhaps is where he is of greatest interest to the contemporary reader, for he opens up a perspective on the protestant attitude to guilt and sin that is largely lost to the contemporary reader, even though it is this attitude which has shaped the development of ideas about mens rea in Scotland and similar jurisdictions.

Roughead also played a significant role in the exoneration of Oscar Slater - a case where his literary reputation for forensic analysis was used in an actual case. Slater was convicted of murder and robbery in 1909. An elderly woman, Mrs Marion Gilchrist, was assaulted and killed in her own home in the West End of Glasgow. Slater, a German Jew with a less than respectable lifestyle who lived nearby, became a suspect when he tried to dispose of some jewellery shortly after the incident - though it was later established that it was not stolen. He was convicted on the basis of flawed identification evidence and sentenced to life imprisonment. Roughead attended the original trial in 1909, and first published a volume on the trial in 1910, in which he was critical of the police investigation and the use of identification evidence. He published three later editions of that work as new evidence came to light, and was instrumental (with others such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) in the campaign to free Slater. He finally gave evidence at the hearing before the newly established Scottish court of criminal appeal in 1928 at which Slater was eventually freed. Ironically, given Roughead's interest in character, it was then the judgement of the Appeal Court that established the rule in Scots criminal procedure that evidence of bad character was irrelevant to guilt.

[A selection of Roughead's essays was recently republished by the NYRB press. There is also a fairly recent biography, by Richard Whittington-Egan, but since Roughead didn't do much except attend trials, and rarely even left Edinburgh, it is a fairly limited source of entertainment]

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