Vermont Bar Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2 Fall 2015, Vol 41, No. 3 - Page 10

by Paul S. Gillies, Esq. RUMINATIONS When Inquests Were Inquisitions When death comes unexpectedly, when there is uncertainty about what happened, officials must inquire. An inquest is the first stage in the criminal justice process that may lead to a grand jury, charges, and a trial. It was a part of legal procedure in this state from before there was a Vermont, based on the English model. Its purpose is not to accuse or charge. It is purely investigatory. But until the 1850s, the result of the inquest was not kept secret, and the conclusion that someone was responsible for a death became public knowledge even when no subsequent proceedings followed. An inquest differs from a grand jury. A grand jury is empowered to indict, by the finding of a true bill. An inquest answers or tries to answer how a person died. Today, the proceedings of both are treated as secret. The doors on the room where the hearing is conducted are locked, and everyone, from the jurors to the bailiff, are sworn to maintain the confidentiality of the proceedings. That is one reason studying these institutions is a challenging business. The evidence about how inquests were conducted and how they ruled has leaked into the public domain through official and unofficial sources. Let’s unseal some of it. Unlike grand juries, today inquests are heard by a single judge, but the court of inquest, or court of inquiry, was a feature of the law from 1779 to 1856. After that date, justices of the peace acted alone, and made decisions that at times led to the next stage of the criminal justice system, the grand jury, and beyond that to a criminal prosecution by the state’s attorney. But during the era of the jury, the process was different. The jury was the body responsible for the decision, not the justice of the peace, who would give no charge or instructions. How this worked procedurally is unclear, but results became public in this period. They were described in a newspaper, and were the subject of public discussion. Even when no charges were filed, people knew that a jury had found someone to be the cause of a death. A very different thing from a conviction, of course, but the censure was manifest in the finding, and served, without more, as a sanction in some cases. Inquisitions are hearings without the benefit of a defense. Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of fifteenth century Spain, used more corporal means to investigate and obtain confessions of heretics, but the 10 process of looking into evidence of criminal acts in an official forum, closed to the public, leaving the accused no role to observe or review the process, seems similarly, if not equally, unfair. It is inconsistent with our modern appreciation for openness and due process, and our respect for the rights of the